What is endometriosis?
The tissue that lines the uterus is called the endometrium. Normally, if a woman doesn’t get pregnant, this tissue is shed each month during her period. In endometriosis, tissue that looks and acts like endometrial tissue implants outside the uterus. Each month, this misplaced tissue responds to the hormonal changes of the menstrual cycle. It builds up, breaks down, and bleeds. But, the blood has nowhere to go. This causes surrounding tissue to become inflamed or swollen. It can also cause scar tissue, chronic pain, and heavy periods.
Endometriosis is a main cause of infertility in women. This can happen if the tissue implants in the ovaries or fallopian tubes. Tissue can also implant on other organs in the pelvis.
How common is endometriosis?
Endometriosis occurs in about one in ten women of reproductive age. It is most often diagnosed in women in their 30s and 40s.
What causes endometriosis?
The cause of endometriosis is not clear. It may be that during a woman’s period, some of the tissue backs up through the fallopian tubes into the belly. Another theory suggests genes are to blame. Current research is also looking at the role of the immune system.
What are the risk factors for endometriosis?
Although any woman may develop endometriosis, the following women seem to be at an increased risk for the disease:
- Women who have a mother, sister, or daughter with the disease
- Women who gave birth for the first time after age 30
- White women
- Women with an abnormal uterus
What are the symptoms of endometriosis?
While each woman may experience symptoms differently, these are the most common symptoms:
- Pain and cramps that may be felt in the belly or lower back during your period
- Abnormal or heavy menstrual flow
- Pain during sex
- Painful urination during your periods
- Painful bowel movements during your periods
- Other gastrointestinal problems, such as constipation, diarrhea, and/or nausea
The amount of pain a woman has isn’t always related to the severity of the disease. Some women with severe disease may have no pain. Other women with a milder form of the disease may have severe pain or other symptoms.
How is endometriosis diagnosed?
First, your gynecologist will review your medical history. You will also have a physical exam and a pelvic exam.
A laparoscopy is done to diagnose endometriosis. This uses a thin tube with a lens and a light at the end. It’s inserted into an incision in the abdominal wall to see into the pelvic area. The gynecologist can often find the locations, extent, and size of the misplaced tissue.
Other tests may include:
- Biopsy. For this test, a small tissue sample is removed from the body and examined.
- Ultrasound. This imaging test uses high-frequency sound waves to create an image of the organs.
- Computed tomography (CT scan). This is an imaging test that uses X-rays and a computer to make detailed images of the body. A CT scan shows details of the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. It can find problems that may not show up on an ordinary X-ray.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This imaging test provides a two-dimensional view of organs or tissue.
How is endometriosis treated?
Your gynecologist will consider your age, overall health, symptoms and other factors when advising what treatment is best for you. Whether you hope to become pregnant will also play a role in your choices.
Treatment choices include medicine, surgery, or both. If symptoms are mild, you may only need pain medicine. In other cases, hormone-based medicine, such as birth control pills, will stop ovulation and slow endometriosis.
Several choices can be used to remove the implants. Doctors may be able to remove abnormal tissue growths using a laparoscope. In other cases, open surgery is needed. Surgery to remove the uterus is also a choice.
What are the complications of endometriosis?
Endometriosis can make it very hard or impossible for a woman to get pregnant. Sometimes surgery can help. But, in a few cases, women may remain infertile. After surgery, most women have relief from pain. However, about 40–80% of women have pain again within 2 years of surgery. The more severe the disease, the more likely it is to return. Taking birth control pills or other medications after having surgery may help extend the pain-free period.
Living with endometriosis
Endometriosis can be a difficult condition to deal with, both physically and emotionally, These simple steps that can help ease the pain of endometriosis:
- Rest, relaxation, and meditation
- Warm baths
- Regular exercise
- Prevent constipation
- Use of hot water bottle or heating pad on your belly