What Every Woman Needs to Know About Endometriosis

woman in pain from endometriosisOne in every 10 women battles endometriosis. We know what you may be thinking: Um, what the heck is that? Unnervingly, not a lot of people know the answer either.


The chronic disease makes you think you are having the WORST period ever -- times about a thousand. But because it's so easily dismissed as PMS, bad cramping, "all in your head," etc., it doesn't receive a lot of attention or research-funding. And as a result, a lot of women suffer without help.

Here's what you need to know about endometriosis.

What is endometriosis?
"Endometriosis is where tissue that usually lines the uterus is found outside the uterus," explains Sherry Ross, MD, OB/GYN, and women's health expert at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. "Endometrial implants" can be found on ovaries, fallopian tubes, bowels, the bladder -- anywhere in your pelvis, pretty much. And each time you have a period, says Dr. Ross, those endometrial implants will bleed, too. As a result, scar tissue develops -- and so does serious pain. Although you can get endometriosis at any time during your childbearing years, it's usually diagnosed in women who are 25-35.

What are common symptoms?
In a word: OUCH. "The classic symptoms include painful menstruation, pelvic pain, painful intercourse, and/or infertility," says Gerard Bustillo, MD, OB/GYN, and medical director of minimally invasive surgery at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. Some women also have bowel and bladder problems. (Think diarrhea and painful urination.) Occasionally, you can have endometriosis but NO symptoms. In those cases, says Dr. Bustillo, "the diagnosis is made at the time of surgery for another reason, or is suggested by ultrasound findings."

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How do you get it?
"You're more likely to get endometriosis if you have a mother, sister, or aunt [who has it]," says Dr. Ross. Other risk factors include not having kids or if you're prone to periods that last longer than seven days. Severe acne as a teenager and certain pesticides may also be linked. If that pesticide thing isn't weird enough, endometriosis is more common in taller, thinner women. "[And it's] more common in women with red hair, freckles, sensitivity to the sun, and precancerous skin moles," notes Dr. Bustillo. Caucasians and Asians are also at higher risk.

Is there anything you can do to prevent it?
If only. Since the cause really isn't known, "there is not anything that can be done to prevent endometriosis," Dr. Ross admits. That said, "many believe that keeping your estrogen levels low can help your risk." A few ways to do that: exercising regularly, avoiding excessive alcohol and caffeine, and limiting exposure to environmental estrogens (like BPA).

How is it treated?
"The goal in treating endometriosis is to treat the symptoms," Dr. Ross notes. Medication (like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and hormones like the birth control pill and progesterone IUD) can quell pain and heavy bleeding. Or you could be prescribed a drug, like one called Lupron, which drastically drops the estrogen levels in your body, causing a "temporary menopause-like state," Dr. Bustillo says. "As a result, the endometriosis implants shrink and cause less pain." (Unfortunately, you may also FEEL like you're going through menopause.)

If that doesn't work, your symptoms are severe, or your fertility's in question, then surgery can be an option to remove or burn the endometrial implants. But it's not a perfect solution. "Endometriosis has a high rate of recurrence," says Dr. Bustillo. Forty percent of patients treated surgically have symptoms 10 years later. Twenty percent of patients need surgery again after just TWO years. There is some good news, though. (Because isn't there always?) "Medical treatments providing better pain relief continue to be developed," Dr. Bustillo says. And with the use of minimally invasive robotic techniques, "surgical treatment is becoming more effective, safer, and better tolerated."

Until then, grab that hot water bottle and hit the couch. At least there'll soon be new Gilmore Girls episodes you can binge watch to relieve the pain.


Image via © overcrew/iStock and Csaba Deli/shutterstock

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