Periods are no picnic. From aches and pains to mood swings and bloating, the experience is uncomfortable, to say the least. Some women have it worse than others, with pain and bleeding so far beyond the norm that it grinds their daily lives to a halt.
It can be easy to overlook these symptoms and simply attribute them to a worse-than-usual period. But because many of these signs overlap with endometriosis symptoms, it's important to keep an eye on them. Here's an overview of endometriosis, its symptoms, and what you can do if you suspect you or a loved one may have the condition.
What Is Endometriosis?
Endometriosis is a disorder that occurs when body tissue similar to the endometrium, the lining of the uterus, forms in places outside the uterus. This tissue can appear on any of the reproductive organs -- including the uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries -- and in the spaces between the bladder, uterus, vagina, and rectum. On rare occasions, it can grow on the intestines, appendix, and even the lungs, sometimes connecting two organs and pulling them from where they belong in the body.
Endometriosis tissue growths are so problematic because they form lesions on whatever surface they grow on. These lesions can get into the affected tissue, much like the roots of a tree, and can cause a variety of painful symptoms. Unfortunately, endometriosis can affect women of any age, but symptoms typically aren't felt until puberty.
Scientists are still trying to figure out what causes endometriosis, though some research suggests that genetics may be a factor. Endometriosis is not contagious, nor is it a sexually transmitted disease, and there are currently no known external causes.
Endometriosis affects about 176 million women across the globe, but due to a lack of awareness, it's often written off as the side effects of a particularly severe period. The most common symptom of endometriosis is pain in the pelvic area, which usually coincides with menstruation. Other key signs to look for include:
- Severe cramps, or cramping that doesn't go away when painkillers are taken and is severe enough to hinder daily activities.
- Periods that last longer than seven days.
- Heavy menstruation that requires a tampon or pad change every two hours or less throughout the majority of the period.
- Painful urination and bowel movements, having to urinate frequently, and/or diarrhea.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Pain during sexual activity.
- Infertility or difficulty getting pregnant.
It's important to note, however, that not everyone will experience all of these symptoms -- some sufferers might not experience any of them at all.
Diagnosis and Treatment
It can take as long as 10 years from when a patient first experiences symptoms to when they receive an accurate diagnosis. Many women are misdiagnosed, sometimes repeatedly, due to how difficult endometriosis is to confirm. CT scans, MRIs, and ultrasounds are almost completely useless, as the lesions aren't visible under these exams. A pelvic exam may come close, but the only way to be certain is for a patient to undergo a diagnostic laparoscopy, a minor surgery in which a small incision is made in the lower abdomen, into which a surgeon can insert a flashlight to illuminate the pelvic cavity. This allows them to see the lesions, confirming the diagnosis.
Unfortunately, there's no cure for endometriosis, only treatments that can help manage the symptoms. Current options include:
- Hormone therapy, including taking oral contraceptives and use of a hormonal intrauterine device (IUD).
- Painkillers, usually from a class of medications called NSAIDs, like ibuprofen.
- Surgery to remove the lesions.
Hormone and painkiller therapies may work for those who have milder symptoms, but they only help to manage the pain and slow disease progression. Laparoscopic excision surgery is considered the gold standard of treatment for endometriosis symptoms, especially when fertility is concerned. Similar to a laparoscopy, a surgeon will use a small incision to get at the lesions and remove both the mass and the surface tissue beneath it, to be certain the entire lesion is removed and won't grow back.
Don't Suffer in Silence
Pain that interferes with your daily life isn't normal: Don't write it off as merely a bad period. If you're experiencing any endometriosis symptoms, make an appointment with your health care professional. If it's not endometriosis, there are a number of other disorders that could be causing your discomfort -- and the first step in any treatment is knowing what's happening with your body. Don't be afraid to advocate for yourself and get the care you deserve.