Endometriosis is a common but little talked about a medical condition affecting 10% of women around the world — that’s almost 176 million women. Despite its prevalence, it is not often discussed and is even less understood.
What is Endometriosis?
Endometriosis is a medical condition that occurs when the lining inside the uterus — called the endometrium — is found outside of the uterus (where it shouldn’t be). This tissue grows in places such as the ovaries, fallopian tubes, or pelvis where it causes chronic inflammation in the body. When the lining breaks down, it has nowhere to go and can cause severe pain and scar tissue.
For most women, the endometrium (uterine lining) sheds each month during their menstrual cycle. Endometriosis occurs when this tissue attaches itself outside of the uterus and can cause cysts, scar tissue, and other growths. These growths can be found throughout the pelvis (bladder, ovaries, fallopian tubes, and bowels). In rare cases, endometriosis has been identified on the lungs, the diaphragm, and even in the nasal cavity. The hormones that trigger a woman’s menstrual cycle each month also trigger this misplaced endometrium to bleed, even when it’s in the wrong place. This can cause pain, internal bleeding, scarring, infertility, and other medical complications.
What are the Symptoms of Endometriosis?
Each woman who lives with endometriosis may experience the condition differently, depending on which part of the body the condition affects. While some patients may experience no symptoms, most experience one or more of the most common symptoms, including:
- Intense, sometimes debilitating menstrual cramps
- Pelvic pain throughout the month
- Pain or discomfort during sexual intercourse
- Leg and/or back pain during menstruation
- Gastrointestinal issues:
- nausea and/or painful bowel movements
- Bladder pain, frequent or urgent need to pee, and/or painful urination
- Infertility, including the inability to conceive or recurrent pregnancy loss
What is the Cause of Endometriosis?
Researchers have not yet pinned down the cause of endometriosis. Some speculate that endometriosis may be genetic, while others suggest it is caused by metaplasia (where one cell type turns into a different cell type), circulatory or lymphatic distribution of endometriosis lesions or a combination of the above. Heredity does play a role in the development of endometriosis, so if your mother or grandmother has it, you are more likely to develop the condition.
Endometriosis doesn’t discriminate and can affect individuals of all races and ages.
How is Endometriosis Diagnosed?
Early diagnosis is key, but the current average timetable from experiencing symptoms to diagnosis is currently 7 to 9 years. Many women are dismissed when sharing their symptoms with family, friends, and even their healthcare provider, which can cause years of suffering without a diagnosis. This can lead to feelings of not only defeat and pain, but isolation, depression, and anxiety. Diagnosis is important for not only the physical health but the mental health of the person living with endometriosis.
Unfortunately, there are not any straightforward diagnostic tests such as a blood test or medical imaging for endometriosis. Sometimes it can be seen via ultrasound or MRI, but many times these tests don’t show endometriosis even when it is there.
In some cases, healthcare professionals can diagnose endometriosis based on a woman’s self-reported symptoms.
In most cases, a laparoscopy — a minimally invasive surgical procedure — is required for an accurate diagnosis. This procedure is an outpatient surgery that typically does not require an overnight stay. Be sure to speak with your doctor about the type of laparoscopy that will be used to identify the disease. In most cases, the suspected endometrial tissues are biopsied (removed and examined under a microscope) in order to identify the disease. This is called an “excision surgery.”
What is the Treatment for Endometriosis?
There is no singular treatment for endometriosis. Most patients find relief by combining medical and/or surgical treatments with natural, holistic approaches. Some of the more common treatments for endometriosis include:
- Birth control pills
- Mirena IUD
- Surgery: laparoscopic surgery to identify and remove the tissue
- Lupron (prescription medication for hormonal imbalance)
- Dietary changes
- Pelvic physiotherapy
- Stress reduction (i.e., meditation, breathwork, yoga, and mindfulness techniques)
- Naturopathic medicine
Speak with your healthcare provider to decide which options are best for you.
Endometriosis is sometimes overlooked, but it is a prevalent condition many menstruating women live with. It’s important to work with a healthcare professional who has experience in diagnosing and treating endometriosis. Though it can be a painful and debilitating condition, it is not terminal and many individuals living with the disease find treatments that help manage and even eliminate symptoms over time.