On the Pelvic Floor

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A Southcoast women’s health physical therapist discusses pain relief for women and men

As the Coordinator of Women’s Health, Janet Gillis, PT, WCS, CLT-UE, helps women and men deal with issues most people don’t like to talk about — urinary and bowel incontinence, pelvic pain, painful intercourse and lymphedema due to breast cancer surgery. Gillis uses biofeedback, therapeutic exercise and other special techniques to help breast cancer patients and people with pelvic floor disorders get relief from pain, improve their symptoms and reclaim their lives. Gillis is one of about 250 people in the U.S. with board certification as a Women’s Health Clinical Specialist in Physical Therapy.

Janet Gillis, PT, WCS, CLT-UE
Role: Coordinator of Women’s Health, Rehabilitation
Length of Service: 28 years
Town: Acushnet
Hobbies: Gardening, spending time with friends and family.

Health+: What do you do?

Gillis: I work with patients with pelvic floor disorders, including incontinence and many kinds of pelvic pain, such as vaginal pain with intercourse. The patients are sent for our conservative treatment, instead of moving forward immediately into surgery. Our treatment may include biofeedback, therapeutic exercise and specific education about bladder/bowel habits.

I also help women who have had breast cancer surgery or who have lymphedema — arm swelling — due to breast cancer surgery. I help the breast cancer patients, restore arm mobility and decrease pain and help the lymphedema patients ease the discomfort of swelling using compression bandages and garments, manual lymphatic techniques and specialized exercises.

I also work with patients who develop back and pelvic pain during pregnancy and postpartum.

Health+: Who is your typical patient?

Gillis: There really is no typical patient. It is commonly thought that people begin having pelvic floor issues as they age, but aging and surgery are not the only conditions that bring about pelvic floor disorders. Pelvic floor weakening can start when a woman has a vaginal delivery, but may not become a problem in the form of urinary incontinence or prolapse until later years. Pelvic alignment, posture and lumbar spine issues can all influence the pelvic floor.

I work with a wide variety of people of all age ranges. I work with men who have had prostate surgery, women before and after childbirth and women of all ages.

Health+: There must be an emotional component to what you do.

Gillis: This specialized physical therapy helps patients deal with very personal matters. Patients should realize that treatment will have a positive impact on their quality of life, even if they have a minor problem. When a problem is severe, patients may limit social engagements and physical activity. As with so many other physical impairments, the earlier a patient receives treatment, the sooner problems can be helped.

Health+: Tell us about your certification.

Gillis: I was certified by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties as a Women’s Health Clinical Specialist in 2012. It was a very rigorous test and I was very lucky to have a mentor who strongly encouraged me to sit for the exam. Even though there are only about 250 of us with the certification, women’s health is a growing field in physical therapy.

Health+: Are there many people doing this kind of work?

Gillis: Right now there are very few in the region, but numbers are growing. Patients travel here from as far as the lower part of Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard for help. Here at Southcoast, Karen Pruyne, PT, DPT, also provides specialized pelvic floor physical therapy. Jaime Foster, PT, DPT, CLT, our Team Leader, is also a Lymphedema specialist, so we now have more PTs able to help our patients. And we are seeing these subspecialties becoming more popular with students who are interested in developing a niche practice.

Health+: We have talked about your patients with pelvic floor disorders, but you also work with another important group of patients.

Gillis: Jaime Foster, PT, DPT, CLT and myself are both Certified Lymphedema Therapists. We provide specialized physical therapy to our patients following breast cancer surgery. We work closely with patients as soon as 2 or 3 weeks post surgery and throughout their oncology journey. We help patients restore full mobility, decrease pain, and restore normal function. If patients show signs of swelling or Lymphedema, we provide specialized techniques to reduce it. Prevention is the key word. We teach patients the knowledge and skill to take care of themselves, to self-manage these problems. We can really improve their lives.

Health+: What is the most rewarding part of your work?

Gillis: Restoring quality of life for my patients. Every case is different, but if a patient is willing to work on our recommendations they often have huge results in a relatively short period of time.