Suffering from unusually painful periods? Having difficulty conceiving? Women experiencing these symptoms should ask their OB/GYN about their risk of endometriosis. But what is endometriosis?
Endometriosis affects one out of every 10 women between the ages of 15 and 49. While the impact of endometriosis varies in severity, even mild cases may cause complications. Here’s what every woman should know about endometriosis, particularly those hoping to conceive.
What exactly is endometriosis, anyway? Endometriosis refers to a sometimes painful condition where the endometrial tissue which normally lines the uterus begins to grow on other organs in the body. Usually, this growth of tissue occurs on other organs in the pelvic area. However, endometriosis can occur on any organ.
Researchers remain uncertain as to what causes the endometrial tissue to spread to other organs in the body. Some scientists theorize the spread of this tissue occurs when women menstruate. Instead of completely shedding through the cervix during the woman’s menstrual period, some of the uterine tissue travels back through the fallopian tubes and out into other organs.
Other research indicates the blood sends chemical messages through the body. When the wrong chemical messages get transmitted through the blood, it signals other organs to grow endometrial tissue, causing what we call endometriosis.
A third theory hypothesizes the organs surrounding the uterus undergo a change in cell tissue type due to their proximity to this organ, and this change makes them susceptible to endometriosis. Finally, women who deliver their infant via C-section run the risk of some of the endometrial cells lining the uterus to protect the baby flowing into the abdominal cavity during the surgery.
Sometimes, women with endometriosis suffer no symptoms at all. They may only begin to suspect something awry once they begin trying to conceive with their partner.
Other women, however, may experience severe pain, usually in the lower abdominal region, but sometimes in the lower back, especially in women with a uterus that tips backward toward the rectum, instead of forward toward the abdominal wall. This pelvic pain may increase with ovulation and menstruation, or may be present at other times during a woman’s menstrual cycle. Some women with endometriosis find using tampons increases pelvic pain.
Additional symptoms of include painful urination or bowel movements, especially if the endometrial tissue grows on the bladder or colon. Women may also experience diarrhea or constipation in addition to abdominal discomfort. Many women suffering from endometriosis also experience pain with intercourse, which can further frustrate efforts to conceive.
In rare instances, women may experience symptoms in other organs, such as the lungs or the brain. When endometriosis occurs in the lungs, women may experience pneumonia-like symptoms of coughing and heaviness in the chest. When this occurs in the brain, women experience headaches, sometimes severe ones.
Endometriosis has four stages. Stage 1 is the mildest form, while Stage 4 indicates severe manifestations of this condition.
The most frustrating symptom many women with endometriosis experience remains difficulty in conceiving. Indeed, many women first discover they suffer from this condition when visiting a fertility specialist after failing to get pregnant.
The exact way endometriosis leads to fertility problems remains a mystery, but likely multiple factors play a role. Endometriosis leaves behind scar tissue, and when this scar tissue develops in a woman’s fallopian tubes, the egg cannot travel to the uterus to be fertilized and implanted.
Also, the chemical messages sent from the uterus through the bloodstream may trigger shedding of endometrial tissue, which prevents the fertilized egg from implanting in the uterine wall where it can develop into a fetus.
Fortunately, several treatments exist. For patients experiencing only mild pain as their most aggravating symptom, over-the-counter pain relievers such as Motrin may offer sufficient relief.
For women suffering more severe forms of endometriosis or those trying to conceive, hormonal therapy can get their bodies back on track. Hormonal birth control helps regulate the growth of endometrial tissue and additionally keeps a woman’s menstrual cycle on track. While birth control obviously fails to address fertility issues directly, a short-term course can aid conception chances by getting the patient’s cycle regulated.
For women seeking to conceive, doctors can perform conservative surgery to remove endometrial scar tissue while keeping the woman’s uterus intact. Women who are not planning to add to their families may opt for a hysterectomy, which removes the uterus entirely, often correcting the issue permanently.
This diagnosis sounds frightening, but with medical care, many women do go on to conceive. As medicine continues to advance, newer technologies such as the use of nano-robots to destroy endometrial scar tissue may expand treatment options. In the meantime, with proper treatment, women with endometriosis nevertheless often go on to lead their best lives and to raise healthy children.