Expert Commentary

Chronic pelvic pain: 11 critical questions about causes and care

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An expert explores anatomic and mechanistic bases of chronic pelvic pain in women to clarify optimal diagnosis, management, and treatment



Dr. Howard is a consultant to Ortho Women’s Health & Urology and a speaker for Abbott Pharmaceutical.

CASE: Multisystem involvement
makes diagnosis and treatment thorny

Sara B. is a 26-year-old gravida 4, para 3, abortus 1 who visits your office to be evaluated for chronic pelvic pain. She says her pain is most intense before and during her period and with intercourse. It is located primarily in her abdominopelvic area, but radiates to her lower extremities and lumbosacral back. It appears to be related to bowel function and meets Rome II criteria for irritable bowel syndrome (criteria developed by a panel of experts convened by the Rome Foundation).

Sara B. reports that she voids at least 20 times a day and once during the night. She has a history of depression, for which she takes sertraline (Zoloft), but no history of physical or sexual abuse. When she underwent laparoscopy more than 1 year ago, endometriosis was diagnosed visually.

Upon physical examination, you identify 13 positive fibromyalgia points, moderate tenderness of the posterior levator ani muscles, severe tenderness of the bladder, and moderate tenderness of the uterine fundus. You also find moderate tenderness in the adnexa and uterosacral ligaments bilaterally. Your tentative diagnosis: endometriosis, interstitial cystitis, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome.

How do you confirm the diagnosis? And what treatment should you offer to her?

Chronic pelvic pain (CPP) is anything but simple. Sara B.’s case illustrates some of the complexity involved in the diagnostic evaluation and treatment of this disorder. Very rarely is the pain localized to one organ or system. More commonly, it involves multiple organs or anatomic areas within the pelvic region.

To confirm the diagnosis in Sara’s case, the next step would be a potassium chloride sensitivity test for interstitial cystitis. I would also start her on desipramine for fibromyalgia, and perform laparoscopy and cystoscopy with hydrodistention to explore the diagnosis further.

In Sara’s case, let’s assume that the repeat laparoscopy reveals glomerulations of the bladder but no recurrent endometriosis. I would administer oral pentosan polysulfate sodium and instill heparin and lidocaine in her bladder to improve her voiding pattern significantly (to the range of four to six times a day without nocturia). I would also prescribe continuous oral contraceptives to suppress her menses and alleviate some of her pain. In addition, I would be interested to see what a transjugular pelvic venogram would reveal. If it were to suggest severe pelvic congestion syndrome, I might perform embolization of both ovarian veins to provide additional relief.

Clearly, when confronted with a case as intricate as Sara’s, there are many ways to organize your thinking about the potential diagnoses that may cause or contribute to CPP. This article focuses on anatomic and mechanistic bases for evaluation of this disorder as a means of tailoring treatment appropriately. It explores these topics by addressing 11 critical questions, ranging from how pain is described to what to do about it.

1. How is pain defined?

Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in terms of such damage.1

Pain is defined in this way to make it clear that it is not just a sensory experience, but both a sensory and emotional experience. This means that the pain is always subjective and is not the same in all individuals—nor does it remain the same in the same person.

Individuals base their descriptions of pain on their unique prior experience of it. Many people report pain in the absence of tissue damage or any likely pathophysiologic cause, often for psychological reasons. If they regard their experience as pain and report it as they would pain caused by tissue damage, it should be accepted as pain. In defining pain, it is best to deliberately avoid tying pain to the stimulus.

What about CPP? There is no generally accepted definition. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) defines it as noncyclic pain of at least 6 months’ duration that localizes to the anatomic pelvis, lumbosacral back, buttocks, or anterior abdominal wall at or below the umbilicus and that is severe enough to cause functional disability or lead to medical care.2


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