Could You Have Endometriosis?

Pelvic pain, irregular bleeding, and infertility. These are the symptoms of endometriosis, a painful condition that affects 5 to 10 percent of all women. With endometriosis, cells from inside the uterus (the endometrium) grow outside where they don't belong. While many women are diagnosed when see their doctor about pain, many have no symptoms and don't discover they have endometriosis until they're struggling with infertility. Read on to learn more about this common condition that may be responsible for a third of all infertility cases.

The American College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians (ACOG) explains that the endometrium is made up of cells that line the uterus.  During the menstrual cycle, the endometrium grows and thickens to prepare for a possible pregnancy. If you don't get pregnant, the endometrium sheds, and you have your period. With endometriosis, endometrial cells grow on the ovaries, fallopian tubes, bladder, bowel, or other parts of the pelvis. It can attach to organs and cause scar tissue to develop. 

What causes endometriosis?  The exact cause is unclear. One common theory is that menstrual fluid and endometrial cells leak through the fallopian tubes and out into the pelvis where they grow and shed, just like with a normal menstrual cycle.

Who's at risk? According to the ACOG, endometriosis is most common in women in their 30s and 40s, but it can occur in any woman who menstruates. It's more common in women who have never had children and those whose mother, sister, or daughter have it. Endometriosis is found in about 75 percent of women with chronic pelvic pain.

How do you know if you have it?  The only way to absolutely diagnose endometriosis is through a surgical procedure called a laparotomy.  A gynecologist makes tiny incisions in the abdomen, threads a microscope and lights into the pelvis and takes a sample of tissue.  Sometimes, however, doctors will make a diagnosis based on a pelvic exam, history, symptoms and other tests.  If pelvic pain can't be attributed to other causes, they may treat the patient as if she definitely has endometriosis.

Can it be cured?  No, but it can be treated. Treatment options vary depending on how extreme your symptoms are and whether you want to have children. It may be treated with medication, surgery, or both. Although treatments may temporarily relieve pain and infertility, symptoms may reoccur.

Sometimes, all it takes is ibuprofen or other over-the-counter pain relievers to make women comfortable.  Other times, doctors may use hormones like birth control pills (and others) to slow the growth of endometrial tissue. 

Some women require surgery to remove endometriosis and scar tissue.  In extreme cases in which no other treatment is successful in reducing pain, a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) is performed.

Endometriosis is a long-term condition, and symptoms may come and go until menopause.  There are many treatment options available though to help women cope with symptoms and overcome infertility.   Talk to your doctor if you think you could have endometriosis.