Around 5 million women in the United States living with endometriosis.1Early diagnosis and treatment can make all the difference, but awareness is still lagging, and many women don’t even know they have the condition. Let’s clear up the facts on endometriosis, what causes it, and what can be done to treat it.
Endometriosis: What is it? What causes it?
Endometriosis is a disease of the endometrium lining of the uterus. In endometriosis, the uterine lining begins growing outside the womb. Once there, the patches of endometriosis break down and bleed in rhythm with the menstrual cycle. But since it can’t be discharged from the vagina to exit the body, the blood and tissue build up, causing inflammation, pain and even scarring. Without early detection and treatment, this can make it harder to get pregnant.
No-one is quite sure what causes endometriosis, though some scientists believe it could be due to the endometrium which doesn’t go away during a period and gets stuck in the pelvic cavity. There may also be a genetic component, as you’re more likely to be affected by endometriosis if you have a close female relative like sister and mother with the condition.
Symptoms of endometriosis
The symptoms of endometriosis can vary from woman to woman, but the key symptom is often severe pelvic menstrual pain. With endometriosis, you may experience some of the following difficulties.
- Severe menstrual pain and cramps, which may get worse as time goes on
- Pain when using the toilet during a period
- Bleeding between menstrual periods
- Pain during or after sexual intercourse
- Digestive troubles like nausea and bloating, especially on your period
Not everyone with endometriosis will experience the same pain, and some women don’t feel pain at all. It all depends on where in the body the extra endometrial tissue has set up shop.
How is endometriosis diagnosed?
Early diagnosis is important to stop endometriosis in its tracks, but on average, it takes a woman 7.5 years to get a diagnosis.2Many women are told their pain is “normal” or “just part of being a woman”, and don’t seek help or have trouble finding a doctor who understands. Once you seek help for your symptoms, a diagnosis of endometriosis may include some of the following procedures.
To look for clues of endometriosis, your practitioner will ask you about your symptoms and history. This will usually involve a discussion of your menstrual cycle patterns and levels of menstrual pain. If your doctor doesn’t seem to understand or is dismissive, you may want to ask for a second opinion. Severe menstrual pain that interferes with your daily life isn’t normal.
A pelvic exam involves your gynecologist manually feeling around for any abnormalities in the reproductive organs such as uterus. This involves feeling around from the inside of the vagina, so it can sometimes be a bit uncomfortable or distressing. Talk to your doctor about what can be done to help you feel more comfortable when you take a pelvic exam.
Ultrasound imaging doesn’t directly diagnose endometriosis, but it will allow your doctor to identify cysts on the reproductive organs. This scan can be done either from inside the vagina, from the outside of the belly, or potentially both. Other imaging techniques, such as MRI and CT scans, are also sometimes used to get a better picture of what’s happening with your pelvis.
Laparoscopy (also called “keyhole surgery”) is a surgeon is able to see endometrial tissue outside the uterus using a camera inserted in a tiny incision near the belly button. This allows them to determine the staging of the disease, or even treat it by removing endometrial cysts.
There’s no cure for endometriosis, but with the right diagnosis and treatment, it can be possible to control the symptoms. The right treatment option depends on your condition, so discuss this with your doctor.
Laparoscopic surgery can be used to treat. If your endometriosis is making it difficult for you to become pregnant, surgery can also improve your chances of conceiving.
Endometrial growth needs estrogen to grow, so hormonal treatments can improve the symptoms of endometriosis by blocking the production of estrogen.
Management with painkillers is a common choice for endometriosis sufferers. Physical therapies such as physiotherapy may also be useful in relieving some of your pain.
Although there are mixed results in the scientific literature, many women claim to have found relief of their symptoms through alternative treatments such as acupuncture and herbal medicines. Remember to check with your doctor first before integrating these into your endometriosis management plans to make sure it’s a good idea in your case.
Don’t suffer through endometriosis in silence
It’s estimated that as many as 1 in 10 women suffer from endometriosis during their reproductive years.3While it’s true there’s still no cure, we do know that early diagnosis and treatment can make a big difference for your quality of life and your fertility goals. If your menstrual pain is getting worse over time, or you think you may be experiencing any symptoms of endometriosis, don’t hesitate to speak to a gynecologist to you can work out what’s going on.