More than five million women in the United States have endometriosis. It is one of the most common health problems for women. It can occur in any teen or woman who has menstrual periods, but it is most common in women in their 30s and 40s.
The symptoms of endometriosis stop for a time during pregnancy. Symptoms also tend to decrease with menopause, when menstrual periods end for good. In some cases, women who take menopausal hormone therapy may still have symptoms of endometriosis.
Endometriosis is a common health problem in women. It gets its name from the word, endometrium (en-doh-MEE-tree-um), the tissue that lines the uterus or womb. Endometriosis occurs when this tissue grows outside of the uterus on other organs or structures in the body.
Most often, endometriosis is found on the:
Tissues that hold the uterus in place
Outer surface of the uterus
Lining of the pelvic cavity
Other sites for growths can include the vagina, cervix, vulva, bowel, bladder, or rectum. In rare cases, endometriosis has been found in other parts of the body, such as the lungs, brain, and skin.
There is no cure for endometriosis, but there are many treatments for the pain and infertility that it causes. Talk with your doctor about what option is best for you. The treatment you choose will depend on your symptoms, age, and plans for getting pregnant.
Pain medication. For some women with mild symptoms, doctors may suggest taking over-the-counter medicines for pain. These include ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve). When these medicines don't help, doctors may prescribe stronger pain relievers.
Hormone treatment. When pain medicine is not enough, doctors often recommend hormone medicines to treat endometriosis. Only women who do not wish to become pregnant can use these drugs. Hormone treatment is best for women with small growths who do not have bad pain. Hormones come in many forms including pills, shots, and nasal sprays.
Surgery. Surgery is usually the best choice for women with severe endometriosis — many growths, a great deal of pain, or fertility problems. There are both minor and more complex surgeries that can help.
Growths of endometriosis are benign (not cancerous). But they still can cause many problems. To see why, it helps to understand a woman's menstrual cycle. Every month, hormones cause the lining of a woman's uterus to build up with tissue and blood vessels. If a woman does not get pregnant, the uterus sheds this tissue and blood. It comes out of the body through the vagina as her menstrual period.
Patches of endometriosis also respond to the hormones produced during the menstrual cycle. With the passage of time, the growths of endometriosis may expand by adding extra tissue and blood. The symptoms of endometriosis often get worse.
Tissue and blood that is shed into the body can cause inflammation, scar tissue, and pain. As endometrial tissue grows, it can cover or grow into the ovaries and block the fallopian tubes. Trapped blood in the ovaries can form cysts, or closed sacs. It also can cause inflammation and cause the body to form scar tissue and adhesions, tissue that sometimes binds organs together. This scar tissue may cause pelvic pain and make it hard for women to get pregnant. The growths can also cause problems in the intestines and bladder.
There are no definite ways to lower your chances of getting endometriosis. Yet, since the hormone estrogen is involved in thickening the lining of the uterus during the menstrual cycle, you can try to lower levels of estrogen in your body.
To keep lower estrogen levels in your body, you can:
Keep a low amount of body fat
Avoid large amounts of alcohol and drinks with caffeine
The pain of endometriosis can interfere with your life. Studies show that women with endometriosis often skip school, work, and social events. This health problem can also get in the way of relationships with your partner, friends, children, and co-workers. Plus, endometriosis can make it hard for you to get pregnant.
Finding out that you have endometriosis is the first step in taking back your life. Many treatments can control the symptoms. Medicine can relieve your pain. When endometriosis causes fertility problems, surgery can boost your chances of getting pregnant.
For more information about endometriosis, call womenshealth.gov at 800-994-9662 (TDD: 888-220-5446) or contact the following organizations:
Endometriosis Research Center
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
Phone: 202-638-5577; 202-863-2518 (for publication requests only)