Most people have never heard of endometriosis and even those that have know little about this medical condition. But like many medical conditions that can seriously affect one’s life, endometriosis can be managed and the risks minimized if a person takes the time to do their homework. Here are some facts and background about the condition known as endometriosis that should help anyone get a better grasp of the condition and how it may affect their lives.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, endometriosis is a non-cancerous condition that affects anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of all women of reproductive age. Endometriosis occurs when cells from the uterine lining, or endometrium, begin growing outside of the uterus. These cells may grow and develop in places like the ovaries, fallopian tubes, bowel, or even bladder. It has been observed where cells even work their way outside of the pelvic cavity and begin growing in more distant areas of the body.
What is extremely odd and perhaps even a little sad about endometriosis is that the condition may have become far more common due to human error. Because women were worried about miscarriages, doctors prescribed a drug called diethylstilbestrol from the late 30’s up until the early 1970s. The daughters of the women who took this drug to prevent miscarriage now have a greater chance of developing endometriosis than average women in the population who did not have mothers taking diethylstilbestrol.
Still, no one really knows what actually causes endometriosis. Some women with the condition experience no visible symptoms at all. Others, however, generally experience pelvic pain that feels similar to the pain felt during the menstrual cycle. The pelvic pain experienced because of endometriosis generally coincides with a woman’s period, but it can be constant for some with the condition. If endometriosis has spread to the bladder or bowel, a woman may experience pain or discomfort when urinating or having a bowel movement.
Unfortunately, there is no actual cure for endometriosis. At best, doctors can manage the symptoms but the condition never actually goes away. Painkillers such as codeine and anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen are basically the best options someone with endometriosis has for managing the pain.
Endometriosis does not have to be a devastating condition that permanently hampers a woman’s lifestyle. Its symptoms can be managed and the pain made bearable with the right medications. If you have noticed irregularities with your menstrual cycle such as increased pain that may extend beyond your period or unusual spotting, consult with your gynecologist immediately.
The primary symptom of endometriosis is pelvic pain, often associated with your menstrual period. Although many women experience cramping during their menstrual period, women with endometriosis typically describe menstrual pain that’s far worse than usual. They also tend to report that the pain increases over time.
Common signs and symptoms of endometriosis may include:
- Painful periods (dysmenorrhea). Pelvic pain and cramping may begin before your period and extend several days into your period. You may also have lower back and abdominal pain.
- Pain with intercourse. Pain during or after sex is common with endometriosis.
- Pain with bowel movements or urination. You’re most likely to experience these symptoms during your period.
- Excessive bleeding. You may experience occasional heavy periods (menorrhagia) or bleeding between periods (menometrorrhagia).
- Infertility. Endometriosis is first diagnosed in some women who are seeking treatment for infertility.
- Other symptoms. You may also experience fatigue, diarrhea, constipation, bloating or nausea, especially during menstrual periods.
The severity of your pain isn’t necessarily a reliable indicator of the extent of the condition. Some women with mild endometriosis have intense pain, while others with advanced endometriosis may have little pain or even no pain at all.
Endometriosis is sometimes mistaken for other conditions that can cause pelvic pain, such as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) or ovarian cysts. It may be confused with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a condition that causes bouts of diarrhea, constipation and abdominal cramping. IBS can accompany endometriosis, which can complicate the diagnosis.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if you have signs and symptoms that may indicate endometriosis.
Endometriosis can be a challenging condition to manage. An early diagnosis, a multidisciplinary medical team and an understanding of your diagnosis may result in better management of your symptoms.
Although the exact cause of endometriosis is not certain, possible explanations include:
- Retrograde menstruation. In retrograde menstruation, menstrual blood containing endometrial cells flows back through the fallopian tubes and into the pelvic cavity instead of out of the body. These displaced endometrial cells stick to the pelvic walls and surfaces of pelvic organs, where they grow and continue to thicken and bleed over the course of each menstrual cycle.
- Transformation of peritoneal cells. In what’s known as the “induction theory,” experts propose that hormones or immune factors promote transformation of peritoneal cells — cells that line the inner side of your abdomen — into endometrial cells.
- Embryonic cell transformation. Hormones such as estrogen may transform embryonic cells — cells in the earliest stages of development — into endometrial cell implants during puberty.
- Surgical scar implantation. After a surgery, such as a hysterectomy or C-section, endometrial cells may attach to a surgical incision.
- Endometrial cells transport. The blood vessels or tissue fluid (lymphatic) system may transport endometrial cells to other parts of the body.
- Immune system disorder. It’s possible that a problem with the immune system may make the body unable to recognize and destroy endometrial tissue that’s growing outside the uterus.
Several factors place you at greater risk of developing endometriosis, such as:
- Never giving birth
- Starting your period at an early age
- Going through menopause at an older age
- Short menstrual cycles — for instance, less than 27 days
- Having higher levels of estrogen in your body or a greater lifetime exposure to estrogen your body produces
- Low body mass index
- Alcohol consumption
- One or more relatives (mother, aunt or sister) with endometriosis
- Any medical condition that prevents the normal passage of menstrual flow out of the body
- Uterine abnormalities
Endometriosis usually develops several years after the onset of menstruation (menarche). Signs and symptoms of endometriosis end temporarily with pregnancy and end permanently with menopause, unless you’re taking estrogen.
The main complication of endometriosis is impaired fertility. Approximately one-third to one-half of women with endometriosis have difficulty getting pregnant.
For pregnancy to occur, an egg must be released from an ovary, travel through the neighboring fallopian tube, become fertilized by a sperm cell and attach itself to the uterine wall to begin development. Endometriosis may obstruct the tube and keep the egg and sperm from uniting. But the condition also seems to affect fertility in less-direct ways, such as damage to the sperm or egg.
Even so, many women with mild to moderate endometriosis can still conceive and carry a pregnancy to term. Doctors sometimes advise women with endometriosis not to delay having children because the condition may worsen with time.
Ovarian cancer does occur at higher than expected rates in women with endometriosis. But the overall lifetime risk of ovarian cancer is low to begin with. Some studies suggest that endometriosis increases that risk, but it’s still relatively low. Although rare, another type of cancer — endometriosis-associated adenocarcinoma — can develop later in life in women who have had endometriosis.