5 myths about endometriosis – Harvard Health Blog
While endometriosis is a common disease, affecting up to one in 10 American women, it is complex and often misunderstood. Endometriosis occurs when tissue similar to the tissue that normally lines the uterus – called the endometrium – begins to grow elsewhere in the body. These growths can cause pain, scarring, and in some cases, infertility.
One study shows that it can take up to seven years for a woman to be diagnosed with endometriosis, as symptoms can 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’re concerned about a painful period or other possible symptoms of endometriosis, such as persistent pain in your lower back or pelvis.
5 myths – and the facts – about endometriosis
Myth 1: Symptoms are just a heavy period. Women with endometriosis sometimes assume their symptoms are an integral part of menstruation, and when they seek help they are sometimes dismissed as an overreaction to normal menstrual symptoms. But in fact, something much more serious is going on than period cramps. One theory is that pain occurs because even when endometrial-like tissue is outside the uterus, it continues to respond to hormonal signals and produce chemicals that cause inflammation and pain.
During the menstrual cycle, this endometrial-like tissue thickens and eventually bleeds. But unlike endometrial tissue in the uterus, which is able to flow through the vagina every month, blood from the displaced tissue has nowhere to go. Instead, it builds up near affected organs and tissues, irritating and inflaming them. The result is pain, and sometimes the development of scar tissue which can form a web, fusing the organs together. This can lead to pain associated with movement or sexual activity.
Myth 2: Endometriosis only affects the pelvic area. The most common locations for endometriotic growths are in the pelvis, such as on the outer surface of the uterus, bladder, and fallopian tubes. But endometriosis can occur anywhere in the body. Rarely, endometrial-like tissue has been found in the lungs, for example.
Myth 3: Endometriosis is always painful. Not all people with endometriosis experience pain. It is not uncommon for a woman to learn that she has endometriosis only after she begins to investigate the reasons why she is having difficulty getting pregnant. Endometriosis is the leading cause of infertility in the United States. Having the condition also increases the likelihood of miscarriage and other problems during pregnancy. However, the good news is that the vast majority of women with endometriosis can eventually have a baby.
Myth 4: Endometriosis is preventable. There is no clearly understood cause of endometriosis, so at this point, there is no known way to prevent it. Certain steps to help lower estrogen levels in the body can lower your risk, according to the US Office of Women’s Health. Estrogen can fuel the growth of endometriosis and make symptoms worse. You can lower your estrogen levels by choosing a low estrogen contraceptive method, losing weight if you are overweight, and exercising regularly.
Myth 5: Endometriosis always gets better after menopause. Although the symptoms of endometriosis most often occur during menstruation, for some women, they last long after the monthly cycles have ended. Even after menopause, the ovaries continue to produce small amounts of estrogen. Endometriotic growths may continue to respond to the hormone, causing pain. So while the symptoms of endometriosis improve in many women, menopause does not bring relief for everyone. Some postmenopausal women may opt for surgeries to remove implants or endometriotic adhesions, or even hysterectomy and oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries). However, these procedures are not always successful in controlling pain. Hormonal therapies also appear to be less effective in women after menopause.
For more information on endometriosis pain treatment, see this Harvard Health Blog article.
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