While endometriosis is a common condition, affecting 1 in 10 American women, it is complex and often misunderstood. Endometriosis occurs when tissue that closely resembles the tissue that lines the uterus – called the endometrium – begins to grow elsewhere in the body. These increases may cause pain, scarring, and in some cases, sterility.
One study shows that it can take up to seven years for a woman to get a diagnosis of endometriosis because symptoms may mimic other common conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome or pelvic inflammatory disease. And misconceptions about the disease, including the five myths below, may prevent some women from seeking help. Talk to your health care team if you are concerned about painful periods or otherwise Symptoms of endometriosisFor example, prolonged pain in the lower back or pelvis.
5 myths – and facts – about endometriosis
Myth 1: The symptoms are just a heavy period. Women with endometriosis sometimes assume their symptoms are a normal part of their menstrual cycle, and when they seek help they are sometimes ruled out as overreacting to normal menstrual symptoms. But in reality, something more serious is happening than menstrual cramps. One theory says that pain occurs because even when endometrial-like tissue is outside the uterus, it continues to respond to hormonal signals and produces chemicals that cause inflammation and pain.
During the menstrual cycle, endometrial-like tissues thicken and eventually bleed. But unlike endometrial tissue, which is able to drain through the vagina every month, there is nowhere for blood to go from the displaced tissue. Instead, it collects near affected organs and tissues, causing them to become irritated and inflamed. The result is pain, and sometimes scar tissue that can form a network, fusing organs together. This may cause pain with movement or sexual activity.
Myth 2: Endometriosis only affects the pelvis. The most common sites for endometriosis to grow are inside the pelvis, such as the outer surface of the uterus, bladder, and fallopian tubes. But endometriosis can occur anywhere in the body. Rarely, endometrial-like tissue is found in the lungs, for example.
Myth 3: Endometriosis is always painful. Not everyone with endometriosis experiences pain. It is not uncommon for a woman to know she has endometriosis only after she begins to investigate why she is having difficulty conceiving. Endometriosis is the leading cause of infertility in the United States. Having this condition also increases the chance of miscarriage and other problems during pregnancy. However, the good news is that the vast majority of women with endometriosis are eventually able to conceive a child.
Myth 4: Endometriosis can be prevented. There is no clear cause of endometriosis, so at this stage there is no known way to prevent it. Some steps to help lower levels of the hormone estrogen in the body can reduce your risk, according to the American Women’s Health Office. Estrogen can fuel the growth of the endometrium and make symptoms worse. You can reduce estrogen levels by choosing a low-estrogen birth control method, lose weight if you are overweight, and get regular exercise.
Myth 5: Endometriosis always improves after menopause. Although symptoms of endometriosis occur most often during menstruation, for some women they persist after their periods have ended. Even after a woman goes through menopause, the ovaries continue to produce small amounts of estrogen. The growth of the uterine lining may continue to respond to the hormone, causing pain. So, while the symptoms of endometriosis improve for many women, menopause does not provide relief for everyone. Some women who have gone through menopause may choose surgical procedures to remove endometrial implants or adhesions, or even hysterectomy and oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries). However, these measures do not always control pain. Hormonal treatments also seem to be less effective in postmenopausal women.
For information about treating endometriosis, see This predicate From the Harvard Health Blog.