For most women, we know that when our period comes each month, we can expect a little pain – maybe a day or two of cramping, some short-lived aches in the lower back. But for 10% of women, that pain is “curl into the fetal position and weep” bad, and it’s due to a condition called endometriosis.
Little was known about endometriosis just a few decades ago. Doctors and family members of patients with endometriosis often dismissed the symptoms. They couldn’t believe the pain of a period could be that bad, and that it was all in a woman’s head. But endometriosis is very real thing that happens in a woman’s body and can cause debilitating pain and may even lead to infertility.
What It Is
Endometriosis or “endo” is named after the endometrium or tissue that normally lines the womb. Endometriosis happens when endometrium grows outside the uterus or on other organs.
The most common locations for endometriosis are:
- Fallopian tubes
- Tissue anchoring the uterus
- The outside of the uterus
Growths are also found on the vagina, cervix, vulva, bowel, bladder, or rectum.
The most common symptom is pain. It has been described by some women as “killer cramps.” It happens because the tissue is growing where it shouldn’t, and your body can’t easily get rid of it.
Other common symptoms include:
- Long or heavy periods
- Migraines or lower back pain during periods
- Pain when pooping or peeing during a period
- Allergies are worse around a period
- Vaginal bleeding between periods
- Blood in the urine or rectum
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Trouble getting pregnant
Women with endometriosis do get pregnant, but researchers have found as many as half of the cases result in infertility.
It’s not clear how endometriosis causes infertility, but some theories include:
- Blocking access to reproductive organs or changing their shape making it harder for sperm to find the egg
- The immune system sometimes attacks the embryo
- The uterine lining doesn’t develop so the egg can’t implant
Who Is at Risk?
Endometriosis can affect any woman who menstruates. Most women are diagnosed when they’re in their 30s and 40s.
You face a higher risk if:
- Your mother, sister or daughter is diagnosed
- You got your period before you were 11
- Your monthly cycle is less than 27 days
- Your cycles are heavy and longer than seven days
You can take a couple of steps to lower your risk, like exercising more than four hours a week or maintaining a low amount of body fat. You’re also at a lower risk if your period started in late adolescence or you’ve been pregnant before.
A number of factors go into the treatment of endometriosis. Your symptoms, your condition, overall health, tolerance for certain treatments and medications, and the desire for pregnancy all play a role.
Doctors will usually recommend pain medication and pain management tips if the symptoms are mild”
Some tips for managing the pain include:
- Warm baths
- A heating pad or hot water bottle on the abdomen
- Rest and relaxation
- Meditation and other forms of self-care
- Regular exercise
- Plenty of fiber
Hormone therapy is another option. Oral contraception is used to prevent ovulation and reduce menstrual flow. Another hormone can be given which induces “medical menopause.” This suppresses the menstrual cycle and activity of the ovaries in an attempt to resolve the endometriosis.
There are also surgical techniques:
- Laparoscopy — This is also used to diagnose endometriosis. A thin tube with a lens and light are inserted through the abdomen to give a view of the pelvic area. The doctor can also remove growths this way.
- Laparotomy — This is a more involved procedure where the doctor moves as much of the tissue as possible without damaging healthy tissue.
- Hysterectomy — This is often the last resort resulting in the removal of the uterus and ovaries.
Meeting Women’s Unique Needs
Women need compassionate care that is customized for the unique health issues they could face at each stage of life. AltaMed provides services that empower women grow healthy at every age.
- Well-woman exams
- Reproductive health
- Routine screenings
- Mammograms/breast health
- Family planning
- Health education
- Health and wellness
- Behavioral health