What is endometriosis?
Endometriosis is a condition in which endometrial tissue grows outside the uterus. "Normally, the endometrium lines the inside of the uterus and is shed during menstruation if a pregnancy does not occur," says Paola A. Rosa, DO, FACOG, Ob/Gyn at ARC Seton Northwest. "However, in individuals with endometriosis, this tissue can grow on other pelvic organs, such as the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and the tissue lining the pelvis." Endometrial tissue growing in these areas does not shed during a menstrual cycle. The buildup of abnormal tissue outside the uterus can lead to inflammation, scarring, and painful cysts. It can also lead to a buildup of fibrous tissues between reproductive organs that causes them to "stick" together.
What are the causes of endometriosis?
The exact cause of endometriosis is unknown. But many different factors are thought to contribute to its development. At present, endometriosis is thought to arise due to:
- Blood or lymph system transport: Endometrial tissues are transported to other areas of the body through the blood or lymphatic systems, like the way cancer cells can spread through the body.
- Direct transplantation: Endometrial cells may attach to the walls of the abdomen or other areas of the body after a surgery, such as a C-section or hysterectomy.
- Genetics: Endometriosis seems to affect some families more often than others, so there may be a genetic link to the condition.
- Reverse menstruation: Endometrial tissue goes into the fallopian tubes and the abdomen instead of exiting the body during a woman's period.
- Transformation: Other cells in the body may become endometrial cells and start growing outside the endometrium.
What are the common symptoms of endometriosis?
The most common endometriosis symptoms are:
- Pain in the lower abdomen before and during periods (usually worse than "normal" menstrual cramps)
- Pain during or after sexual activity
- Painful urination/bowel movements during periods
- Heavy bleeding
- Other gastrointestinal upsets such as diarrhea, constipation, nausea
"While pain is a common symptom of endometriosis, the severity does not indicate the endometriosis stage," cautions Dr. Rosa. "Some women with stage 4 endometriosis have few or no symptoms, while those with stage 1 can have severe symptoms."
Who is at risk for developing endometriosis?
Studies show that women are at higher risk for endometriosis if they:
- Have a mother, sister, or daughter with endometriosis
- Started their period at an early age (before age 11)
- Have short monthly cycles (less than 27 days)
- Have heavy menstrual periods that last more than seven days
Some studies also suggest that having a lean body mass or low body fat may increase a woman's risk for endometriosis.
Some things that can lower the risk of endometriosis include:
- Pregnancy and breastfeeding
- Having your first period after age 14
- Eating fruits, especially citrus fruits
Treatment options for endometriosis
While there is no cure for endometriosis, various treatment options are available to manage the symptoms and improve quality of life. These can include pain medications, hormone therapy to suppress the menstrual cycle and reduce tissue growth, and, in some cases, surgical removal of endometrial tissue. "In recent years, endometriosis has become more mainstream, and so have treatments," says Dr. Rosa, "Meaning we have more tools than ever to help treat the symptoms of endometriosis."
Make an appointment today
If you suspect you have endometriosis or are experiencing symptoms, it's important to consult a doctor, preferably an Ob/Gyn, for proper diagnosis and management.
You can make an appointment online with an ARC Ob/Gyn with MyChart, by visiting the ARC Ob/Gyn web page, or by calling the clinic most convenient to you.