Conference Coverage

For pelvic pain, think outside the lower body



– An estimated 15%-25% of women aged 18-50 years suffer from chronic pelvic pain, a condition that commonly leads to sick days, reduced activity, and higher medication use. Treatments like surgery and opioids may seem feasible, but an obstetrician-gynecologist who studies pain urged colleagues to think twice.


In some cases, pelvic pain patients may suffer from centralized pain syndromes, conditions linked to the central nervous system that may not respond well to those common treatments, said Sawsan As-Sanie, MD, MPH, director of the University of Michigan Endometriosis Center, Ann Arbor.

“If we have laser vision on the pelvis, we may help some patients, but many of us will do harm,” said Dr. As-Sanie, who spoke at the Pelvic Anatomy and Gynecologic Surgery Symposium.

Endometriosis is frequently linked to pelvic pain. But, she said, the link between the two is fuzzier than has been assumed.

“It would make sense that endometriosis or pelvic adhesions would activate nociceptive pain, and [there are] a lot of data to support that this is, in part, how endometriosis causes pain,” she said. “But I would argue it really isn’t that simple because the relationship between endometriosis and pelvic pain is very complex and not explained entirely by the lesion.” For example, “we know that pain recurs after medical and surgical therapy, often without evidence of recurrent endometriosis.” And, there’s little relationship between pain symptoms and the location or extent of endometriosis.

What’s going on? Dr. As-Sanie suggested central pain syndromes can play a significant role in pelvic pain. These syndromes are 1.5-2 times more common in women than men, and are triggered or exacerbated by stressors.

She also emphasized the wide-ranging effects of these syndromes. “We focus on pain, but it’s clearly not a just a pain disorder,” noting that patients can report fatigue, poor sleep, greater sensitivity to light and sound, and memory difficulties that produce “fibromyalgia fog.”

Research suggests that patients with central pain syndromes experience changes in both brain structure and function, she said. As for pelvic pain specifically, studies have linked it to increased pain sensitivity and altered central nervous system structure and function regardless of whether endometriosis is present.

How should patients with pelvic pain be treated in light of this information? Dr. As-Sanie suggests first trying “gold standard” approaches to treat contributing factors whether they’re gynecologic, urologic, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal or nerve related.

If those strategies don’t work, she said, “consider treating centralized pain” with a blend of approaches: behavioral (such as diet and cognitive-behavior therapy), medical (such as hormone modulation), and interventional (such as physical therapy and surgery).

Also consider pharmacologic therapies, said Dr. As-Sanie, who identified dual reuptake inhibitors (venlafaxine [Effexor] and duloxetine [Cymbalta] are a class of antidepressants that block the reuptake of both serotonin and norepinephrine) and anticonvulsants as drugs with strong evidence as treatments for central pain syndromes.

“Start at low doses and titrate up,” she advised, and “if at any point a given medication doesn’t work, we should try another.”

The Pelvic Anatomy and Gynecologic Surgery Symposium was jointly provided by Global Academy for Medical Education and the University of Cincinnati. Global Academy and this news organization are owned by the same company.

Dr. As-Sanie discloses she is a consultant for AbbVie and Myovant.

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