Most women experience some type of discomfort when they get their period, including menstrual cramps, stomach pain, and diarrhea. But what if your pain is particularly bad? Well, if you are plagued by persistent cramps and painful bleeding, you may have a menstrual complication called endometriosis. Endometriosis, or endo, can wreak havoc on your body and your lifestyle, leaving you tired, sick, and perhaps even unable to go on with daily activities. If you think you may have endometriosis, it is important to discuss the issue with your doctor. However, because it is easy to misdiagnose endo, knowing just what to say and ask your doctor can help you get a proper diagnosis sooner.
What is Endometriosis?
Endometriosis affects more than 5 million women in North America every year. Millions more worldwide also have the disease. Endometriosis is a chronic disease that affects a woman's menstrual cycle. It causes tissues similar to the lining of your uterus (called the endometrium) to grow in different areas of the body, resulting in pain, bleeding, and other symptoms.
If you have endometriosis, uterine tissue can begin to take root on your ovaries, fallopian tubes, rectum, or uterine wall. In some cases, this tissue can even grow on the bladder, bowel, vagina, and in surgical scars. Eventually, this tissue grows into lesions, which can form scar tissue and cause organs to adhere. Like the endometrium, this rogue tissue sheds every month, causing severe pain and discomfort. Because this discarded blood and tissue has no way to leave the body, it remains, causing internal bleeding and scarring.
Causes of Endometriosis
Unfortunately, to date there is no determined cause for endometriosis; however, there are a number of theories as to why it affects some women. Some theorists assert that endometriosis may be the result of genetic complications passed down through a family. Others point to the lymph and blood systems as having a role in distributing endometrial tissues to other areas of the body. Or, endometriosis may be caused by a backup of menstrual fluid that happens during your period. Sometimes, blood and tissue can reverse through the fallopian tubes, allowing the tissues to implant and grow in parts of the abdomen.
Symptoms of Endometriosis
The most obvious endometriosis symptom is severe pelvic pain during your period. However, this does not occur in all women who have endometriosis. In fact, many women suffer no symptoms despite having the illness. Symptoms for endometriosis do tend to get worse over time though. If you are worried, be on the lookout for these signs and symptoms of endometriosis and get checked by your health care provider regularly.
- painful periods, with cramping in the lower back and abdomen
- pain during ovulation
- deep, stabbing pains during sexual intercourse
- painful bowel movements or urination, especially during your period
- heavy bleeding or bleeding between periods
Endometriosis is not something that you want to leave untreated. The disease can result in infertility because tissue adhesions can prevent your eggs from entering the fallopian tubes. Unfortunately, between 30% and 40% of women with endometriosis are unable to have children. This is not to say that you won't get pregnant if you have endometriosis. However, the risk of infertility rises the longer the disease is left untreated.
There is no cure for endometriosis, although there are a variety of treatments for the disorder. Treatment for endometriosis is aimed at reducing symptoms, preserving fertility, and preventing later reoccurrence of the disease. If you have endometriosis, speak with your health care provider about your treatment options.
There are a number of effective medical treatments for endometriosis. These treatments include:
- Pain Killers
- Over-the-counter painkillers may be an excellent endometriosis pain treatment. They should reduce your pain and allow you to return to your usual activities. Generally, aspirin and ibuprofen are effective enough to minimize pain. If your pain is extreme though, you may be advised to take a mild narcotic.
- Hormonal Contraceptives
- The combined birth control pill, which delivers estrogen and progesterone to the body, is helpful in reducing symptoms of pain associated with your period. It will also help to regulate your period and minimize your bleeding. Birth control for endometriosis can also be taken continuously in order to limit the number of periods you have in a year. One recent study reported an 80% satisfaction rate with this method of treatment. Side effects may include weight gain, nausea, headache, and irregular bleeding.
- Gn-RH Agonists
- This is a type of hormone therapy that helps to control your menstrual bleeding. Gn-RH is a synthetic form of gonadotropin releasing hormone, which your body needs to regulate its monthly cycle. Injections of Gn-RH help to control estrogen production in your body, which is responsible for tissue growth. With this treatment, your bleeding should stop within 2 months and other symptoms will disappear within 4 to 6 weeks. Unfortunately, this treatment does not come without side effects. You will experience symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes and mood swings. Gn-RH also causes the loss of bone mass. After six months of treatment you will lose between 4% and 6% of your bone density, which can increase your risk of osteoporosis.
- If your symptoms are particularly bad or if your abdominal growths are large, you may decide to undergo surgery to have them removed. Conservative endometriosis surgery uses lasers to destroy growths. Sometimes this form of surgery can stall the illness long enough for you to become pregnant and give birth. Sometimes endometriosis is so developed that a hysterectomy is required. A surgeon will remove your uterus and ovaries in order to reduce your pain and bleeding.
Alternative Therapies for Endometriosis
If you find that conventional medications just aren't for you, you may want to look into natural treatment alternatives. Most natural treatments focus on reducing the amount of estrogen in the body. Estrogen is often responsible for excess tissue growth. Here are some treatments that might work for you. Remember to consult your health care provider before trying any type of alternative treatment.
- Vitamin E: Vitamin E is known to reduce inflammation and inhibit pain. It can also be helpful in balancing estrogen levels in the body.
- Natural Progesterone Creams: These creams, which are available over-the-counter or in naturopathic stores, contain the hormone progesterone. This will help to level out the amount of estrogen in your body, inhibiting tissue growth.
- Estrogen-Reduced Diet: Diet and endometriosis are often linked. Following an estrogen-reduced diet may be helpful in preventing further tissue growth and scarring. Products like milk and meat, and the plastic containers we use to reheat food in, often contain xenoestrogens, a type of synthetic estrogen which can promote estrogen levels in the body. Avoid any non-organic meat products, as these have been injected with xenoestrogens. Also, try to increase the amount of fiber and vegetables in your diet.