Every month, a woman's ovaries produce hormones that tell the cells lining the uterus to swell and get thicker. Your uterus sheds these cells along with blood and tissue through your vagina when you have your period.
Endometriosis occurs when these cells grow outside the uterus in other parts of your body. This tissue may attach on your:
- Lining of your pelvic area
It can grow in other areas of the body, too.
These growths stay in your body, and like the cells in the lining of your uterus, these growths react to the hormones from your ovaries. They grow and bleed when you get your period. Over time, the growths may add more tissue and blood. The buildup of blood and tissue in your body leads to pain and other symptoms.
No one knows what causes endometriosis. One idea is that when you get your period, the cells may travel backwards through the fallopian tubes into the pelvis. Once there, the cells attach and grow. However, this backward period flow occurs in many women. Researchers think that the immune system plays a role in causing endometriosis in women the condition.
Endometriosis is common. Sometimes, it may run in families. Endometriosis probably starts when a woman begins having periods. However, it usually is not diagnosed until ages 25 to 35.
You are more likely to develop endometriosis if you:
- Have a mother or sister with endometriosis
- Started your period at a young age
- Never had children
- Have frequent periods, or they last 7 or more days
- Have a closed hymen, which blocks the flow of menstrual blood during the period
Endometriosis occurs when cells from the lining of your womb (uterus) grow in other areas of your body. This can cause pain, heavy bleeding, bleeding between periods, and problems getting pregnant (infertility).
Exams and Tests
Your health care provider will perform a physical exam, including a pelvic exam. You may have one of these tests to help diagnose the disease:
Hormone therapy and laparoscopy can't cure endometriosis. However, in some women, these treatments may help relieve symptoms for years.
Removal of the uterus, fallopian tubes, and both ovaries (a hysterectomy) gives you the best chance for a cure.
Once you enter menopause, endometriosis is unlikely to cause problems.
Endometriosis can lead to problems getting pregnant. However, most women with mild symptoms can still get pregnant. Laparoscopy to remove growths and scar tissue may help improve your chances of becoming pregnant. If it does not, you may want to consider fertility treatments.
Other complications of endometriosis include:
- Long-term pelvic pain that interferes with social and work activities
- Large cysts in the pelvis that may break open (rupture)
In rare cases, endometriosis tissue may block the intestines or urinary tract.
Very rarely, cancer may develop in the areas of tissue growth after menopause.
Birth control pills may help to prevent or slow down the development of the endometriosis. Birth control pills used as treatment for endometriosis work best when taken continuously and not stopped to allow a menstrual period. They may be used for young women in late adolescence or early 20s with painful periods that may be due to endometriosis.
Pain is the main symptom of endometriosis. You may have:
- Painful periods.
- Pain in your lower belly before and during your period.
- Cramps for a week or 2 before and during your period. Cramps may be steady and range from dull to severe.
- Pain during or following sexual intercourse.
- Pain with bowel movements.
- Pelvic or low back pain that may occur at any time.
You may not have any symptoms. Some women with a lot of tissue in their pelvis have no pain at all, while some women with milder disease have severe pain.
Learning how to manage your symptoms can make it easier to live with endometriosis.
What type of treatment you have depends on:
- Your age
- Severity of your symptoms
- Severity of the disease
- Whether you want children in the future
There are different treatment options.
If you have mild symptoms, you may be able to manage cramping and pain with:
- Exercise and relaxation techniques.
- Over-the-counter pain relievers -- These include ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol).
- Prescription painkillers, if needed, for more severe pain.
- Regular exams every 6 to 12 months so your doctor can assess the disease.
These medicines can stop endometriosis from getting worse. They may be given as pills, nasal spray, or shots. Only women who are not trying get pregnant should have this therapy. Hormone therapy will prevent you from getting pregnant. Once you stop therapy, you can get pregnant again.
Birth control pills -- With this therapy, you take the hormone pills (not the inactive or placebo pills) for 6 to 9 months continuously. Taking these pills relieves most symptoms. However, it does not treat any damage that has already occurred.
Progesterone pills or injections -- This treatment helps shrink growths. Side effects may include weight gain and depression.
Gonadotropin-agonist medicines -- These medicines stop your ovaries from producing the hormone estrogen. This causes a menopause-like state. Side effects include hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and mood changes. Treatment is often limited to 6 months because it can weaken your bones. Your provider may give you small doses of hormone to relieve symptoms during this treatment. This is known as 'add-back' therapy. It may also help protect against bone loss, while not triggering growth of the endometriosis.
Your provider may recommend surgery if you have severe pain that does not get better with other treatments.
- Laparoscopy helps diagnose the disease and can also remove growths and scar tissue. Because only a small cut is made in your belly, you will heal faster than other types of surgery.
- Laparotomy involves making a large incision (cut) in your belly to remove growths and scar tissue. This is major surgery, so healing takes longer.
- Laparoscopy or laparotomy may be a good option if you want to become pregnant, because they treat the disease and leave your organs in place.
- Hysterectomy is surgery to remove your uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. If your ovaries are not removed, symptoms may return. You would only have this surgery if you have severe symptoms and do not want to have children in the future.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your provider if:
- You have symptoms of endometriosis
- Back pain or other symptoms reoccurring after endometriosis is treated
You may want to get screened for endometriosis if:
- Your mother or sister has the disease
- You are unable to become pregnant after trying for 1 year
Advincula A, Truong M, Lobo RA. Endometriosis: etiology, pathology, diagnosis, management. In: Lobo RA, Gershenson DM, Lentz GM, Valea FA, eds. Comprehensive Gynecology. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2017:chap 19.
Burney RO, Giudice LC. Endometriosis. In: Jameson JL, De Groot LJ, de Kretser DM, et al, eds. Endocrinology: Adult and Pediatric.7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 130.
Olive DL. Endometriosis. In: Kellerman RD, Bope ET, eds. Conn's Current Therapy 2018. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2018:1096-1099.