Endometriosis is a condition in which the type of tissue that forms the lining of the uterus (the endometrium) is found outside the uterus. It occurs in about one in ten women of reproductive age and is most often diagnosed in women in their 30’s and 40’s.
Areas of endometrial tissue (often called implants) most often occur in the following places:
- Fallopian tubes
- Outer surfaces of the uterus, bladder, ureters, intestines, and rectum
- Cul-de-sac (the space behind the uterus)
Endometriosis implants respond to changes in estrogen, a female hormone. The implants may grow and bleed like the uterine lining does during the menstrual cycle, causing surrounding tissue to become irritated, inflamed, and swollen. The breakdown and bleeding of this tissue each month also can cause scar tissue (adhesions) to form. Adhesions can cause organs to stick together unnaturally. The bleeding, inflammation, and scarring can cause pain, especially around menstruation.
Almost 40% of women with infertility have endometriosis. Inflammation from endometriosis may damage the sperm or egg, or interfere with their movement through the fallopian tubes and uterus. In severe cases of endometriosis, the fallopian tubes may be blocked by adhesions or scar tissue.
The most common symptom of endometriosis is chronic (long-term) pelvic pain, especially just before and during the menstrual period or during sex. If endometriosis is present on the bowel, pain during bowel movements can occur. If it affects the bladder, pain may be felt during urination. Heavy menstrual bleeding is another symptom of endometriosis, but many women with endometriosis have no symptoms.
A health care provider may first do a physical exam, including a pelvic exam. However, the only way to tell for sure that you have endometriosis is through a surgical procedure called laparoscopy. Sometimes a small amount of tissue is removed during the procedure and tested thoroughly. This is called a biopsy.
Treatment for endometriosis depends on the extent of the disease, your symptoms, and whether you want to have children. Endometriosis may be treated with medication, surgery, or both. When pain is the primary problem, medication usually is tried first.
Medications that are used to treat endometriosis include pain relievers and hormonal medications. Hormonal medications help slow the growth of the endometrial tissue and may keep new adhesions from forming. These drugs typically do not get rid of endometriosis tissue that is already there.
Surgery to remove endometriosis implants can be done to relieve pain and improve fertility. After surgery, most women have relief from pain. However, about 40–80% of women have pain again within 2 years of surgery. The more severe the disease, the more likely it is to return. Taking birth control pills or other medications after having surgery may help extend the pain-free period.