The Twisted Trunk: Implications for Abdominal and Pelvic Pain

While attending the 3rd World Congress of Abdominal and Pelvic Pain Conference last October in Washington, DC, I had the pleasure of listening to the lecture of Dr. Diane Lee, BSR, FCAMPT, CGIMS. Dr. Lee discussed the impact that altered pelvic biomechanics and non-optimal function in the abdominal wall and pelvic floor have on pelvic pain. Dr. Lee is a practicing Physiotherapist and Women’s Health clinical specialist in Canada. As an author, instructor, fellow and the owner and director of her own therapy clinic, Dr. Lee has made a significant contribution to this field. Her lecture, The Twisted Trunk: Implications for Abdominal and Pelvic Impairment and Pain is summarized below.

By Sigourney Cross
Pelvic Health and Rehabilitation Center, Berkeley, CA

The Integrated Systems Model

Dr. Lee poses the question, “Would you race a car that had its wheels out of alignment around a racetrack?” Most people would answer no. Many people who are seeking relief from their pelvic floor symptoms have comorbidities or other conditions that can be contributing factors. When clinicians are deciding whether to start treatment at the pelvic floor or to look elsewhere first and see how the pelvic floor responds, Dr. Lee suggests using the Integrated Systems Model (ISM). Learn more about the ISM approach on Dr. Lee’s website here. The ISM is an “evidence informed clinical reasoning framework to optimize strategies for function and performance.”4 This approach helps clinicians in their clinical decision making in the assessment and treatment of patients. It helps identify which patients need specific training of the muscles of the trunk and pelvic floor and those who do not by assessing motor control.

The ISM and Motor Control

Motor control is the process of how humans and animals use their brain to activate and coordinate muscles to perform a task or skill. The motor control response to pain varies from person to person because the following three dimensions influence it.

  1. Sensorial Dimension-Location and behavior of primary complaint
  2. Cognitive Dimension-Beliefs and attitudes about their experiences
  3. Emotional Dimension-Feelings associated with experiences

Because motor control varies based on an individual’s thoughts, beliefs, and experiences surrounding that task, this makes it challenging for clinicians to assess. There is not one universal strategy of muscle activation for control. Each strategy is unique to not only the individual but also to the task itself. Some people may brace and stiffen during pain while others can loosen and destabilize. The goal of rehabilitation or using motor learning strategies is to remove, modify or enhance an individual’s adaptation based on the unique solution adopted from the patient.3 Physical Therapists must take a thorough history to understand which of the above dimensions is creating the largest barrier to changing their motor control strategy. We can then implement this change through patient education, building trust, movement, and touch to change the sensory input in order to change the motor output.

Before focusing on the pelvic floor in isolation, it’s important look at the patient’s overall alignment and motor control. Some patients may only need motor control training strategies to re organize their muscle recruitment dys-synergies. These dys-synergies can come from the pelvic floor reacting to varying processes in the body including the following:

  1. Excessive intra-abdominal pressure–This can be caused by varying factors whether it be an abdominal trauma, an acute syndrome such a pancreatitis or different exercises.
  2. Poor foot control creating an ascending force up the lower extremities-This causes internal rotation of the leg, which put forces on the obturators’, which are connected to the pelvic floor.
  3. A descending force from the thorax-This can cause a rotation within the thorax.
  4. Pulls from the coccyx on the dura-This can come from an old spinal concussion or disc protrusion.
  5. Twists in the trunk
What is a twist in the trunk?

A twist in the trunk occurs when there is an incongruent rotation between the thorax and the pelvis or to put it simply, when the pelvis and thorax are going in opposite directions. This is a significant finding because all of the multi segmental muscles of the trunk are important in motor control and movement.2

There is a significant correlation between the presence of pelvic floor diagnoses and movement diagnoses of the spine and hip. In a study by Wente & Spitznagle, 2017, they found that out of 225 patients with urinary urgency and frequency almost 50% of them had hip or spine impairments and 18% had either thoracic or pelvic girdle impairments.

Consider a very common case. A 31-year-old mother, five months postpartum, feels persistent pelvic girdle pain that increases with large steps. Using the ISM approach, you would start by picking a meaningful task. This could be a task that causes pain, a movement the patient finds difficult, or a task the patient avoids altogether. Once the task is picked you then analyze the task and identify areas of the body with suboptimal alignment and poor biomechanics. The goal with this type of analysis is to find the driver or the patient’s sub optimal movement strategy. The driver is what is going to be the most impactful impairment you can change. While analyzing this new mom’s posture (Learn more about posture here), thorax rotation, single leg stance and active bent SLR a common suboptimal strategy was found. As shown in the picture above, this is an over-activation of the iliocostalis (one of the deep muscles of the back that connects from your ribs to your hip) and an under activation of the deep abdominals.5 This imbalance of your muscles pulling your ribs one direction and your pelvis the other causes twists in the trunk. Physical therapists can correct misalignments with varying techniques including manual therapy techniques and therapeutic exercise. Correcting this patients alignment and getting the “twists” out of her trunk, allowed her to restore control at her thorax and use a more optimal movement pattern. It changed her motor control strategy, therefore allowing her to perform her meaningful tasks without pelvic girdle pain.

What do we do with this information?

This lecture has been very meaningful to my clinical practice in the sense that it helps explain why some patients may still feel lingering pelvic floor symptoms when there is no longer impairment at the tissue level. I think it is important to understand that examining the pelvic floor in isolation may not reveal all the contributing factors causing patients symptoms. Although there are many individuals who require specific isolated pelvic floor muscle training, It’s important to be cognizant of identifying the individuals who do not, and who would benefit more from treating misalignment of the trunk and creating more optimal biomechanics, motor control and recruitment strategies. If you are struggling with pelvic floor symptoms the physical therapists at the Pelvic Health and Rehabilitation Center can help!

We thank Dr. Diane Lee for a fantastic lecture. To view the presentation in its entirety please start on page 185 here.



1Hodges & Smeets. Contemporary theory of motor adaptation in pain. Clin J pain. 2015
2Hodges, P W. Pain and motor control: From the laboratory to rehabilitation. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology: Official Journal of the International Society of Electrophysiological Kinesiology. 2011;21(2): 220–228
3Hodges, Van Dillen, McGill, Brumagne, Hides, Moseley. Consensus from the Evidence. Pain and motor control. Journal of electromyography and Kinesiology. 2013; 21.
4Lee D, Lee LJ. The Pelvic Girdle. An integration of Clinical Expertise and Research. 2007-2013.
5Macintosh JE, Bogduk N. The attachments of the lumbar erector spinae. Spine Phila Pa. 1991;(7):783-92.
6Wente KR, Spitznagle TM. Movement-Related Urinary Urgency: A Theoretical Framework and Retrospective, Cross-sectional Study. Journal of Women’s Health Physical Therapy: May 2017; 41(2) 83–90.

Posted by IPPS Admin on March 26, 2018, 12:00AM

Upcoming Events

  • 24th Annual Scientific Meeting on Pelvic Pain - October 21-24, 2021 - Baltimore, MD Read More