Endometriosis is an often painful disorder in which tissue that normally lines the inside of your uterus — the endometrium — grows outside your uterus. Endometriosis most commonly involves your ovaries, bowel or the tissue lining your pelvis. Rarely, endometrial tissue may spread beyond your pelvic region.
In endometriosis, displaced endometrial tissue continues to act as it normally would: It thickens, breaks down and bleeds with each menstrual cycle. And because this displaced tissue has no way to exit your body, it becomes trapped. Surrounding tissue can become irritated, eventually developing scar tissue and adhesions — abnormal tissue that binds organs together.
This process can cause pain — sometimes severe — especially during your period. Fertility problems also may develop. Fortunately, effective treatments are available.
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 has increased over time.
Common signs and symptoms of endometriosis may include:
The severity of your pain isn't necessarily a reliable indicator of the extent of the condition. Some women with mild endometriosis have extensive 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
Endometriosis occurs when bits of the tissue that lines the uterus (endometrium) grow on other pelvic organs, such as the ovaries or fallopian tubes. Outside the uterus, endometrial tissue thickens ...
A process called retrograde menstruation is a likely explanation for endometriosis. 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 the menstrual cycle.
Retrograde menstruation alone may not cause endometriosis, though. Instead, the condition may develop when one or more small areas of the abdominal lining turns into endometrial tissue. This is possible because the cells lining the abdominal and pelvic cavities are descended from embryonic cells with the potential to specialize and take on the structure and function of endometrial cells. What activates that potential remains unknown.
Among the factors that place you at greater risk of developing endometriosis are:
Endometriosis usually develops several years after the onset of menstruation (menarche). The signs and symptoms of endometriosis end temporarily with pregnancy and permanently with menopause.
The main complication of endometriosis is impaired fertility. Approximately one-third to one-half of women who have 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.
Even so, many women with mild to moderate endometriosis are still able to 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. The longer you have endometriosis, the greater your chance of becoming infertile.
Preparing for your appointment
Your first appointment will be with either your primary care physician or a gynecologist. If you're seeking treatment for infertility, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in reproductive hormones and optimizing fertility (reproductive endocrinologist).
Because appointments can be brief, and it can be difficult to remember everything you want to discuss, it's a good idea to prepare in advance of your appointment.
What you can do
For endometriosis, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Make sure that you understand completely everything that your doctor tells you. Don't hesitate to ask your doctor to repeat information or to ask follow-up questions for clarification.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
To diagnose endometriosis and other conditions that can cause pelvic pain, your doctor will ask you to describe your symptoms, including the location of your pain and when it occurs.
Tests to check for physical clues of endometriosis include:
Treatments and drugs
Treatment for endometriosis is usually with medications or surgery. The approach you and your doctor choose will depend on the severity of your signs and symptoms and whether you hope to become pregnant.
Generally, doctors recommend trying conservative treatment approaches first, opting for surgery as a last resort.
Hormonal therapies used to treat endometriosis include:
Hormonal therapies aren't a permanent fix for endometriosis. It's possible that you could experience a recurrence of your symptoms after stopping treatment.
Conservative surgery removes endometrial growths, scar tissue and adhesions without removing your reproductive organs. Your doctor may do this procedure laparoscopically or through traditional abdominal surgery in more extensive cases. In laparoscopic surgery, a slender viewing instrument (laparoscope) is inserted through a small incision near your navel. Guided by the laparoscope, your doctor inserts other instruments through another small incision to remove endometrial implants. Such instruments might include a laser, small surgical instruments or a cautery — an instrument that destroys tissue with heat.
Assisted reproductive technologies to help you become pregnant are sometimes preferable to conservative surgery, and doctors often suggest these approaches if conservative surgery is ineffective.
Lifestyle and home remedies
If your pain persists or if finding a treatment that works takes some time, you can try measures at home to relieve your discomfort. Warm baths and a heating pad can help relax pelvic muscles, reducing cramping and pain.
Finding a doctor with whom you feel comfortable is crucial in managing and treating endometriosis. You may also want to get a second opinion before starting any treatment regimen to be sure you know all of your options and the possible outcomes.
Some women report relief from endometriosis pain after acupuncture treatment. However, research is sparse on this — or any other — alternative treatment for endometriosis. If you're interested in pursuing this therapy in the hope that it could help you, ask your doctor to recommend a reputable acupuncturist. Check with your insurance company beforehand to see if the expense will be covered.
Coping and support
Left undiagnosed or untreated, endometriosis can be a frustrating condition. Painful periods can cause you to miss work or school and can strain relationships. Recurring pain can lead to depression, irritability, anxiety, anger and feelings of helplessness. Infertility linked to endometriosis also can cause emotional distress.
That's why it's important to seek treatment if you suspect you may have endometriosis. Keeping a record of your symptoms can aid your doctor in your diagnosis.
If you're dealing with endometriosis or its complications, you may want to consider joining a support group for women with endometriosis or fertility problems. Sometimes it helps simply to talk to other women who can relate to your feelings and experiences. If you can't find a support group in your community, look for one on the Internet.
Because the causes of endometriosis remain elusive, no definite techniques to manage the risk of endometriosis have been developed. Although it appears that women who have given birth are less likely to develop endometriosis than are women who have not, many other factors play a more important role in the decision to have a child.
Last Updated: 2010-09-11
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