Endometriosis is a common, yet poorly understood disease that can strike women of any socioeconomic class or race. The name endometriosis comes from the word “endometrium,” which is the tissue that lines the inside of the uterus. Normally, if a woman is not pregnant, this tissue builds up and is shed each month as menstrual flow (your period). Endometriosis occurs when this tissue grows outside the uterus on the surfaces of organs in the pelvic and abdominal areas where it does not normally grow. Tissues surrounding the area of endometriosis may become inflamed or swollen, leading to the development of scar tissue. After menopause, the abnormal implants shrink away and the symptoms subside.
Most endometriosis is found in the pelvic cavity, including:
In extremely rare cases, endometriosis areas can grow in the lungs or other parts of the body.
Endometriosis can affect a menstruating woman, from the time of her first period to menopause. One of the most common symptoms of endometriosis is pain, mostly in the abdomen, lower back and pelvic areas. The severity of pain a woman feels is not linked to the amount of endometriosis. Some women experience no pain even though their endometriosis is extensive, which means that the affected areas are large or there is scarring. Some women, on the other hand, have severe pain even though they have only a few small areas of endometriosis. The following are some symptoms of endometriosis:
You are more likely to develop endometriosis if you:
Some studies suggest that you may lower your chances of developing endometriosis if you exercise regularly and avoid alcohol and caffeine.
Severe endometriosis with extensive scarring and organ damage may affect fertility. It is considered one of the three major causes of female infertility; about 30 percent to 40 percent of women with endometriosis are infertile. While the pregnancy rates for patients with endometriosis remain lower than those of the general population, most patients with endometriosis do not experience fertility problems. For those with endometriosis-related infertility, it is often treated successfully with hormones and surgery.
Currently, health care providers use a number of tests for endometriosis. The two most common are imaging tests - ultrasound, a machine that uses sound waves to produce images of organs and systems within the body and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a machine that uses magnets and radio waves to provide an image. The only way to know for sure is by having surgery. The most common type is laparoscopy. The surgeon uses a small viewing instrument with a light, called a laparsocope, to look at the reproductive organs, intestines and other surfaces to see if there is any endometriosis. The diagnosis can be confirmed by doing a biopsy, which involves taking a small tissue sample and studying it under a microscope.
There is no cure for endometriosis, but there are treatments. For patients who wish to become pregnant, doctors are advising that, depending on the age of the patient and the amount of pain associated with the disease, the best course of action is to have a trial period of unprotected intercourse for six months to one year. If pregnancy does not occur within that time, then further treatment may be needed. For patients not seeking to become pregnant the treatment may include:
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
The National Women’s Health Information Center, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services