About endometriosis

What is endometriosis?

Endometriosis is the abnormal growth of cells (endometrial cells) similar to those that form the inside of the uterus, but in a location outside of the uterus. Endometriosis is most commonly found on other organs of the pelvis.

  • The exact cause of endometriosis has not been identified.
  • Endometriosis is more common in women who are experiencing infertility than in fertile women, but the condition does not necessarily cause infertility.
  • Most women with endometriosis have no symptoms, however, when women do experience symptoms they may include:
    • Pelvic pain that may worsen during menstruation
    • Painful intercourse
    • Painful bowel movements or urination
    • Infertility
  • Pelvic pain during menstruation or ovulation can be a symptom of endometriosis, but may also occur in normal women.
  • Endometriosis can be suspected based on the woman's pattern of symptoms, and sometimes during a physical examination, but the definite diagnosis is confirmed by surgery, usually laparoscopy.
  • Treatment of endometriosis includes medication and surgery for both pain relief and treatment of infertility if pregnancy is desired.

What is endometriosis?

Endometriosis is the abnormal growth of cells (endometrial cells) similar to those that form the inside or lining the tissue of the uterus, but in a location outside of the uterus. Endometrial cells are the lining cells of the uterus and are cells that are shed each month during menstruation. Endometriosis occurs when cells like the lining of the uterus grow in or on tissues outside the uterus; these areas are called endometriosis implants. These implants are most commonly found on the ovaries, the Fallopian tubes, outer surfaces of the uterus or intestines, and on the surface lining of the pelvic cavity. They can also be found in the vagina, cervix, and bladder, although less commonly than other locations in the pelvis. Rarely, endometriosis implants can occur outside the pelvis, on the liver, in old surgery scars, and even in or around the lung or brain. Endometrial implants, while they can cause problems, are benign (not cancerous).



What are the symptoms for endometriosis?

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 increases over time.

Common signs and symptoms of endometriosis may include:

  • Painful periods (dysmenorrhea). Pelvic pain and cramping may begin before your period and extend several days into your period. You may also have lower back and abdominal pain.
  • Pain with intercourse. Pain during or after sex is common with endometriosis.
  • Pain with bowel movements or urination. You're most likely to experience these symptoms during your period.
  • Excessive bleeding. You may experience occasional heavy periods (menorrhagia) or bleeding between periods (menometrorrhagia).
  • Infertility. Endometriosis is first diagnosed in some women who are seeking treatment for infertility.
  • Other symptoms. You may also experience fatigue, diarrhea, constipation, Bloating or nausea, especially during menstrual periods.

The severity of your pain isn't necessarily a reliable indicator of the extent of the condition. Some women with mild endometriosis have intense 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

See your doctor if you have signs and symptoms that may indicate endometriosis.

Endometriosis can be a challenging condition to manage. An early diagnosis, a multidisciplinary medical team and an understanding of your diagnosis may result in better management of your symptoms.



What are the causes for endometriosis?

Although the exact cause of endometriosis is not certain, possible explanations include:

  • Retrograde menstruation. 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 each menstrual cycle.
  • Transformation of peritoneal cells. In what's known as the "induction theory," experts propose that hormones or immune factors promote transformation of peritoneal cells — cells that line the inner side of your abdomen — into endometrial cells.
  • Embryonic cell transformation. Hormones such as estrogen may transform embryonic cells — cells in the earliest stages of development — into endometrial cell implants during puberty.
  • Surgical scar implantation. After a surgery, such as a hysterectomy or C-section, endometrial cells may attach to a surgical incision.
  • Endometrial cells transport. The blood vessels or tissue fluid (lymphatic) system may transport endometrial cells to other parts of the body.
  • Immune system disorder. It's possible that a problem with the immune system may make the body unable to recognize and destroy endometrial tissue that's growing outside the uterus.



What are the treatments for endometriosis?

Endometriosis can be treated with medications and/or surgery. The goals of endometriosis treatment may include pain relief and/or enhancement of fertility.

Medical treatment of endometriosis

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs (such as ibuprofen or naproxen sodium) are commonly prescribed to help relieve pelvic pain and menstrual cramping. These pain-relieving medications have no effect on the endometrial implants. However, they do decrease prostaglandin production, and prostaglandins are well-known to have a role in production of pain sensation. Because the diagnosis of endometriosis is only definite after a woman undergoes surgery, there will of course be many women who are suspected of having endometriosis based on the nature of their pelvic pain symptoms. In such a situation, NSAIDs such as ibuprofen or naproxen are commonly used. If they work to control pain, no other procedures or medical treatments are needed. If they do not relieve the pain, additional evaluation and treatment generally occur.

Since endometriosis occurs during the reproductive years, many of the available medical treatments for endometriosis rely on interruption of the normal cyclical hormone production by the ovaries. These medications include GnRH analogs, oral contraceptive pills, and progestins.

Gonadotropin-releasing hormone analogs (GnRH analogs)

Gonadotropin-releasing hormone analogs (GnRH analogs) have been effectively used to relieve pain and reduce the size of endometriosis implants. These drugs suppress estrogen production by the ovaries by inhibiting the secretion of regulatory hormones from the pituitary gland. As a result, menstrual periods stop, mimicking menopause. Nasal and injection forms of GnRH agonists are available.

The side effects are a result of the lack of estrogen, and include:

  • hot flashes,
  • vaginal dryness,
  • irregular vaginal bleeding,
  • mood changes,
  • fatigue, and
  • loss of bone density (osteoporosis).

Fortunately, by adding back small amounts of progesterone in pill form (similar to treatments sometimes used for symptom relief in menopause) many of the annoying side effects due to estrogen deficiency can be avoided. "Add back therapy" is the term that refers to this modern way of administering GnRH agonists along with progesterone in a way to keep the treatment successful, but avoid most of the unwanted side effects.

Oral contraceptive pills

Oral contraceptive pills (estrogen and progesterone in combination) are also sometimes used to treat endometriosis. The most common combination used is in the form of the oral contraceptive pill (OCP). Sometimes women who have severe menstrual pain are asked to take the OCP continuously, meaning skipping the placebo (sugar pill) portion of the cycle. Continuous use in this manner will free a woman of having any menstrual periods at all. Occasionally, weight gain, breast tenderness, nausea, and irregular bleeding are mild side effects. Oral contraceptive pills are usually well-tolerated in women with endometriosis.

Progestins

Progestins [for example, medroxyprogesterone acetate (Provera, Cycrin, Amen), norethindrone acetate, norgestrel acetate (Ovrette)] are more potent than birth control pills and are recommended for women who do not obtain pain relief from or cannot take a birth control pill.

Side effects are more common and include:

  • breast tenderness,
  • bloating,
  • weight gain,
  • irregular uterine bleeding, and
  • depression.

Since the absence of menstruation (amenorrhea) induced by high doses of progestins can last many months after cessation of therapy, these drugs are not recommended for women planning pregnancy.

Other drugs used to treat endometriosis

Danazol (Danocrine)

Danazol (Danocrine) is a synthetic drug that creates a high androgen (male type hormone) and low estrogen hormonal environment by interfering with ovulation and ovarian production of estrogen. Eighty percent of women who take this drug will have pain relief and shrinkage of endometriosis implants, but up to 75% of women develop side effects from the drug.

Side effects can include:

  • weight gain,
  • edema,
  • decreased breast size,
  • acne,
  • oily skin,
  • hirsutism (male pattern hair growth),
  • deepening of the voice,
  • headache,
  • hot flashes,
  • changes in libido, and
  • mood changes.

All of these changes are reversible, except for voice changes; but the return to normal may take many months. Danazol should not be taken by women with certain types of liver, kidney, and heart conditions.

Aromatase inhibitors

A newer approach to the treatment of endometriosis has involved the administration of drugs known as aromatase inhibitors (for example, anastrozole [Arimidex] and letrozole [Femara]). These drugs act by interrupting local estrogen formation within the endometriosis implants themselves. They also inhibit estrogen production in the ovary, brain, and other sources, such as adipose tissue. Research is still ongoing to characterize the effectiveness of aromatase inhibitors in the management of endometriosis. Aromatase inhibitors cause significant bone loss with prolonged use. They also must be used in combination with other drugs in premenopausal women because of their effects on the ovaries.



What are the risk factors for endometriosis?

Several factors place you at greater risk of developing endometriosis, such as:

  • Never giving birth
  • Starting your period at an early age
  • Going through menopause at an older age
  • Short menstrual cycles — for instance, less than 27 days
  • Having higher levels of estrogen in your body or a greater lifetime exposure to estrogen your body produces
  • Low body mass index
  • Alcohol consumption
  • One or more relatives (mother, aunt or sister) with endometriosis
  • Any medical condition that prevents the normal passage of menstrual flow out of the body
  • Uterine abnormalities

Endometriosis usually develops several years after the onset of menstruation (menarche). Signs and symptoms of endometriosis end temporarily with pregnancy and end permanently with menopause, unless you're taking estrogen.



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