Over five million women in the United States suffer from endometriosis. Most common in women in their 30s and 40s, it can occur in any woman who menstruates, and is one of the most common health problems experienced by women.
The word “endometriosis” comes from the word “endometrium,” the name for the lining of the uterus. Endometriosis is the condition in which this tissue is found growing in locations outside the uterus, such as the outside of the uterus, the ovaries, the fallopian tubes, or elsewhere.
Endometriosis often causes lower abdominal or pelvic pain, or lower back pain, mostly during the menstrual period. The amount of pain the woman experiences is not necessarily linked to the extent of the endometriosis; some women experience a lot of pain with just a few small growths, and other women may experience little to no pain even though large areas of their bodies are affected.
Other symptoms can include painful sexual intercourse, painful urination or bowel movements, bleeding between periods, infertility, fatigue, and gastrointestinal disturbances.
Endometriosis is not cancerous, but it can still present a number of problems. Growths can expand month by month, causing increasing symptoms. Untreated, endometriosis can cause scar tissue, inflammation, and increasing pain. It can block the fallopian tubes; it can grow into the ovaries. Cysts can form as a result of blood trapped in the ovaries. Adhesions, tissue that can bind organs together, can form as a result of scar tissue.
Risk Factors for Endometriosis
Women who have never had children, have longer than normal periods, shorter than normal cycles, a family history of the disease, and cellular damage caused by a previous pelvic infection are at higher risk for developing endometriosis.
The cause of endometriosis isn’t well understood, but theories include:
- Immune system disorders
- Endocrine system disorders
- Unintended relocation of uterine tissue during surgery
- Exposure to certain chemicals
- Reflux of endometrial tissue into the abdomen during a woman’s period
Diagnosis and Treatment of Endometriosis
Be sure to talk to your gynecologist if you have symptoms of endometriosis. Your doctor will most likely want to perform certain tests, such as a pelvic exam, an ultrasound, and/or exploratory surgery.
If endometriosis is found, there is no cure, but a number of treatments are available that can help with symptoms such as pain and infertility. Your doctor should inform you of your options and help you select the ones that best suit your individual condition.
Pain medications, hormone treatments such as birth control pills or GnRH agonists and antagonists, which reduce estrogen, and surgery (best for severe cases) are all possible treatment options. Surgery may involve the removal of growths and scar tissue, or it may involve removing the uterus altogether (hysterectomy).
Endometriosis can be difficult to cope with on an emotional level. Talking with other women who have endometriosis can help. http://endometriosis.org/support/support-groups/ is a good resource for information and support. Above all, talk to your doctor about your symptoms and your options; learn as much as you can, and follow your doctor’s recommendations for treatment. Many women with endometriosis are able to find significant relief.
You can find more information on endometriosis in my book, Inside Information for Women.
– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.