It's the first day of Aunt Flo's monthly visit, and you feel like someone is carving out your lower abdomen with a blunt melon ball tool. You burn through a box of tampons the way a pit crew discards bald tires. Do you suffer from unusually heavy menstruation — or do your symptoms indicate an underlying disorder?
If you're a woman experiencing problems with her reproductive system, you can search for years before finding a cure. To advocate for yourself effectively at the OB-GYN, you need to educate yourself on common disorders. One condition females frequently experience is endometriosis. Recognizing the signs of this disease, and taking prompt action, can preserve your fertility.
What Is Endometriosis and What Causes It?Endometriosis refers to a medical condition where the endometrium, or the tissue that lines your uterus, grows on organs outside this cavity. The growth can occur on your ovaries or your large intestines. Rarely, the endometrium spreads beyond the pelvic cavity to other organs, as well.
When you ovulate, your body releases hormones that stimulate the growth of endometrial tissue. This occurs to prepare your body for pregnancy. However, when the tissue grows outside of the uterus, it can cause other organs to stick together or create scarring.
Researchers don't know what causes endometriosis, but they have several theories. In some cases, you might experience retrograde menstruation, where your tissue travels backward through your fallopian tubes. However, not all women with retrograde menstruation develop endometriosis. If you've had surgery on your lower abdomen, your doctor may have transferred endometrial cells to other areas of the cavity.
Other scientists point to hormonal changes in prompting unusual tissue growth. Many factors contribute to these variations, including your diet and stress levels. Stress impacts your monthly hormonal fluctuations, and excessive pressure could prompt your body to hit the accelerator. Exposure to toxins like pollution and cigarette smoke can also prompt changes.
What Are the Symptoms of Endometriosis?Endometriosis can be challenging to diagnose, but these symptoms are commonly associated with it:
- Pain with intercourse: Because scar tissue arises on organs in the pelvic region, you can experience pain if your partner strikes them.
- Pain with menstruation: As the tissue detaches, you experience stronger than normal cramping.
- Painful bowel movements: Your endometrial tissue can attach to your bowels, and when it detaches, the go becomes painful.
- Painful urination: Similarly, your endometrium may attach to the bladder.
- Infertility: Not all cases of endometriosis result in infertility. If you and your partner have tried for at least six months to conceive, make an appointment with your gynecologist.
- Other symptoms: You may also experience higher-than-average bloating before your period. Additionally, you may endure fatigue and nausea, especially with menstruation.
It's important to note that several other conditions cause symptoms similar to those seen in endometriosis. Uterine fibroids, for example, can also cause heavy menstrual periods and pain with intercourse. So can polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
Your gynecologist will perform a pelvic examination and an ultrasound. If they suspect endometriosis, they will conduct a laparoscopy or biopsy to confirm the diagnosis. They may order blood tests to check for hormonal irregularities. It can take as long as 7 1/2 years to receive a diagnosis once symptoms develop, so contact your doctor without delay.
How Is Endometriosis Treated?If you're coping with a diagnosis of endometriosis, you want to know your treatment options. These fall into three general categories — pain medications, hormone replacement and surgery. The best protocol depends on your age and your childbearing status.
Some women experience only mild symptoms that they treat effectively with over-the-counter (OTC) medications like Motrin. In severe cases, doctors may prescribe opioids. However, stricter prescribing guidelines make many physicians hesitate to use such potent drugs. The FDA recently approved the first medication designed specifically for pain from this condition.
Hormonal birth control pills control endometriosis with varying degrees of success. However, these pose difficulties if you and your partner are trying to conceive. Specific estrogen inhibitors have demonstrated success in Europe, but the FDA has not cleared them for use in the U.S.
Surgical options include laparoscopic surgery to remove or ablate scar tissue. In severe cases, physicians will perform a hysterectomy. This procedure renders a woman infertile, and surgeons typically advise women to wait until they conclude childbearing. They will usually leave the ovaries intact. However, even women who have these organs removed can experience a recurrence of their disorder.