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Diagnosis of non-endometriosis pelvic pain after negative diagnostic laparoscopy

Author: Michael Breen, MD, FACOG

Mentor: Amy Young, MD, FACOG
Editor: Elizabeth Ferries-Rowe, MD

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Although considered the gold standard in investigating acute or chronic pelvic pain, diagnostic laparoscopy may be noncontributory in 30-50% of patients. While this can be quite a disappointment to the patient, it should be explained that there can still be many possible etiologies. Hence, evaluation should be aimed at identifying contributory factors rather than focusing on a single diagnosis as the cause of pelvic pain.

Aside from common gyn etiologies, such as uterine and adnexal sources, other etiologies include urethral syndrome, interstitial cystitis, vulvodynia, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic appendicitis, central sensitization syndrome, pelvic neuropathies, and constipation. There is little evidence to support laparoscopic uterosacral ligament/nerve ablation (LUNA) or the use of adhesiolysis to treat CPP. The complex nature of managing pelvic pain after negative laparoscopy may be best addressed in a center by a specialized multidisciplinary team including gynecologist, psychiatrist and/or psychologist, pelvic floor physical therapist, social worker, pain management, and other subspecialists.

A thorough history should be elicited for characteristics of the pain (nature, location, duration, onset, and referral), association with bowel, urinary symptoms and impact of physical activity and posture. Evaluation should include abdominal and pelvic examination with careful palpation for focal muscle tenderness (levator ani, obturator internus, and piriformis), inguinal and femoral hernia orifices, sacroiliac joints, pubic symphysis, and lumbosacral vertebrae. Hernias may be diagnosed by palpating a cough impulse during physical examination; inguinal ultrasonography (with cough stress test) may also aid diagnosis. Treatment is surgical repair with or without supporting mesh.

Musculoskeletal sources of pain are often overlooked, for example, myofascial pain (trigger points), pelvic floor myalgia, hernias, degenerative disc disease and nerve entrapment syndromes. In one study, abdominal wall pain (AWP) was diagnosed in 67% of patients with chronic pelvic pain (CPP) and AWP patients were more likely to require opioids or pain adjuvants than women without abdominal wall pain. Diagnosis of AWP is aided by Carnett’s test. Carnett’s test is performed by having the patient tense her abdominal wall; unchanged or worsening abdominal wall tenderness (positive test) is diagnostic of abdominal wall pain. Once hernias are excluded, injecting the muscle with a local anesthetic with or without corticosteroids is both diagnostic and therapeutic.

Pelvic floor myalgia (non-relaxing pelvic floor dysfunction) is a common cause of CPP and is characterized by pelvic pain worsened by prolonged sitting or standing, or physical activity including sexual intercourse. Pain is minimal in the morning and worsens as the day progresses and is often associated with defecatory dysfunction or urinary urgency.  One prospective magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study identified levator ani injury in 77% of patients with pelvic pain after negative laparoscopy compared to 4% of pain free controls. Careful single digit palpation may show exquisite tenderness of levator ani, obturator internus and or pyriformis muscles; the level of pain elicited from palpation should be documented using a patient reported pain scale.  Anorectal manometry with balloon expulsion may help confirm defecatory disorders and urodynamic testing may be appropriate in evaluating urinary symptoms. Early referral for physical therapy is important with 60-80% of patients reporting marked or complete relief.

Adenomyosis is common in women of reproductive age and is often indistinguishable from endometriosis with features including CPP, severe dysmenorrhea, and deep dyspareunia. Unlike endometriosis, heavy menstrual bleeding may be a prominent symptom. Pelvic examination may demonstrate a globally enlarged and tender uterus and 2D ultrasonography may show characteristic features including heterogenous myometrial echo texture, myometrial cysts, indistinct endometrial-myometrial border and presence of diffuse myometrial vascularity. Both 3D ultrasonography and MRI imaging can be suggestive if the initial results are inconclusive. Effective treatment options include oral contraceptive pills, levonorgestrel intrauterine device and uterine artery embolization.

Depression, sleep disorders and psychological issues are often associated with CPP and may be the result of the pain rather than causative factors. Conversely, a significant proportion of women with chronic pelvic pain may have histories of sexual or physical abuse and in particular child abuse that may provoke pain somatization. Use of abuse screening questions may be helpful because patients do not generally associate history of abuse with current pain syndrome.  When appropriate, referral to a mental health professional should be considered. 

Further Reading:

Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RC of ObGyn), Guidelines Committee of the RC of ObGyn. The initial management of chronic pelvic pain. Green-top Guideline No. 41, May 2012. Updated February 2017.

Faubion SS, Shuster LT, Bharucha AE. Recognition and management of nonrelaxing pelvic floor dysfunction. Mayo Clin Proc. 2012 Feb;87(2):187-93. doi: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2011.09.004.

Chronic Pelvic Pain: ACOG Practice Bulletin, Number 218. Obstet Gynecol. 2020 Mar;135(3):e98-e109. doi: 10.1097/AOG.0000000000003716. PMID: 32080051.

Leonardi M, Armour M, Gibbons T, Cave A, et al., Surgical interventions for the management of chronic pelvic pain in women. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2021 Dec 20;12(12):CD008212. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD008212.pub2. PMID: 34923620; PMCID: PMC8684822. Accessed 14 July 2023.

Initial Approval May 2018; Revised January 2020, Revised September 2021. Revised July 2023

Originally titled: “Management of pelvic pain after negative diagnostic laparoscopy”. Title Revised September 2021.


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