Learn about endometriosis, including possible treatments for this condition that causes pain and sometimes infertility in many women.
Endometriosis (en-doe-me-tree-O-sis) is an often painful disorder in which tissue similar to the tissue that normally lines the inside of your uterus — the endometrium — grows outside your uterus. Endometriosis most commonly involves your ovaries, fallopian tubes and the tissue lining your pelvis. Rarely, endometrial-like tissue may be found beyond the area where pelvic organs are located.
With endometriosis, the endometrial-like tissue acts as endometrial tissue would — it thickens, breaks down and bleeds with each menstrual cycle. But because this tissue has no way to exit your body, it becomes trapped. When endometriosis involves the ovaries, cysts called endometriomas may form. Surrounding tissue can become irritated, eventually developing scar tissue and adhesions — bands of fibrous tissue that can cause pelvic tissues and organs to stick to each other.
Endometriosis can cause pain — sometimes severe — especially during menstrual periods. Fertility problems also may develop. Fortunately, effective treatments are available.
With endometriosis, bits of the uterine lining (endometrium) — or similar endometrial-like tissue — grow outside of the uterus on other pelvic organs. Outside the uterus, the tissue thickens and bleeds, just as typical endometrial tissue does during menstrual cycles.
The primary symptom of endometriosis is pelvic pain, often associated with menstrual periods. Although many experience cramping during their menstrual periods, those with endometriosis typically describe menstrual pain that's far worse than usual. Pain also may increase over time.
Common signs and symptoms of endometriosis include:
The severity of your pain may not be a reliable indicator of the extent of your condition. You could have mild endometriosis with severe pain, or you could have advanced endometriosis with little or no pain.
Endometriosis is sometimes mistaken for other conditions that can cause pelvic pain, such as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) or ovarian cysts. It may be confused with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a condition that causes bouts of diarrhea, constipation and abdominal cramping. IBS can accompany endometriosis, which can complicate the diagnosis.
See your doctor if you have signs and symptoms that may indicate endometriosis.
Endometriosis can be a challenging condition to manage. An early diagnosis, a multidisciplinary medical team and an understanding of your diagnosis may result in better management of your symptoms.
Although the exact cause of endometriosis is not certain, possible explanations include:
Several factors place you at greater risk of developing endometriosis, such as:
Endometriosis usually develops several years after the onset of menstruation (menarche). Signs and symptoms of endometriosis may temporarily improve with pregnancy and may go away completely with menopause, unless you're taking estrogen.
The main complication of endometriosis is impaired fertility. Approximately one-third to one-half of women with endometriosis have difficulty getting pregnant.
For pregnancy to occur, an egg must be released from an ovary, travel through the neighboring fallopian tube, become fertilized by a sperm cell and attach itself to the uterine wall to begin development. Endometriosis may obstruct the tube and keep the egg and sperm from uniting. But the condition also seems to affect fertility in less-direct ways, such as by damaging the sperm or egg.
Even so, many with mild to moderate endometriosis can still conceive and carry a pregnancy to term. Doctors sometimes advise those with endometriosis not to delay having children because the condition may worsen with time.
Ovarian cancer does occur at higher than expected rates in those with endometriosis. But the overall lifetime risk of ovarian cancer is low to begin with. Some studies suggest that endometriosis increases that risk, but it's still relatively low. Although rare, another type of cancer — endometriosis-associated adenocarcinoma — can develop later in life in those who have had endometriosis.
During fertilization, the sperm and egg unite in one of the fallopian tubes to form a zygote. Then the zygote travels down the fallopian tube, where it becomes a morula. Once it reaches the uterus, the morula becomes a blastocyst. The blastocyst then burrows into the uterine wall — a process called implantation.
To diagnose endometriosis and other conditions that can cause pelvic pain, your doctor will ask you to describe your symptoms, including the location of your pain and when it occurs.
Tests to check for physical clues of endometriosis include:
Laparoscopy. In some cases, your doctor may refer you to a surgeon for a procedure that allows the surgeon to view inside your abdomen (laparoscopy). While you're under general anesthesia, your surgeon makes a tiny incision near your navel and inserts a slender viewing instrument (laparoscope), looking for signs of endometrial tissue outside the uterus.
A laparoscopy can provide information about the location, extent and size of the endometrial implants. Your surgeon may take a tissue sample (biopsy) for further testing. Often, with proper surgical planning, your surgeon can fully treat endometriosis during the laparoscopy so that you need only one surgery.
During a pelvic exam, a doctor inserts one or two gloved fingers inside the vagina. Pressing down on the abdomen at the same time, the doctor can check the uterus, ovaries and other organs.
Treatment for endometriosis usually involves medication or surgery. The approach you and your doctor choose will depend on how severe your signs and symptoms are and whether you hope to become pregnant.
Doctors typically recommend trying conservative treatment approaches first, opting for surgery if initial treatment fails.
Your doctor may recommend that you take an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen sodium (Aleve) to help ease painful menstrual cramps.
Your doctor may recommend hormone therapy in combination with pain relievers if you're not trying to get pregnant.
Supplemental hormones are sometimes effective in reducing or eliminating the pain of endometriosis. The rise and fall of hormones during the menstrual cycle causes endometrial implants to thicken, break down and bleed. Hormone medication may slow endometrial tissue growth and prevent new implants of endometrial tissue.
Hormone therapy isn't a permanent fix for endometriosis. You could experience a return of your symptoms after stopping treatment.
Therapies used to treat endometriosis include:
If you have endometriosis and are trying to become pregnant, surgery to remove the endometriosis implants while preserving your uterus and ovaries (conservative surgery) may increase your chances of success. If you have severe pain from endometriosis, you may also benefit from surgery — however, endometriosis and pain may return.
Your doctor may do this procedure laparoscopically or, less commonly, through traditional abdominal surgery in more-extensive cases. Even in severe cases of endometriosis, most can be treated with laparoscopic surgery.
In laparoscopic surgery, your surgeon inserts a slender viewing instrument (laparoscope) through a small incision near your navel and inserts instruments to remove endometrial tissue through another small incision. After surgery, your doctor may recommend taking hormone medication to help improve pain.
Endometriosis can lead to trouble conceiving. If you're having difficulty getting pregnant, your doctor may recommend fertility treatment supervised by a fertility specialist. Fertility treatment ranges from stimulating your ovaries to make more eggs to in vitro fertilization. Which treatment is right for you depends on your personal situation.
Surgery to remove the uterus (hysterectomy) and ovaries (oophorectomy) was once considered the most effective treatment for endometriosis. But endometriosis experts are moving away from this approach, instead focusing on the careful and thorough removal of all endometriosis tissue.
Having your ovaries removed results in menopause. The lack of hormones produced by the ovaries may improve endometriosis pain for some, but for others, endometriosis that remains after surgery continues to cause symptoms. Early menopause also carries a risk of heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) diseases, certain metabolic conditions and early death.
Removal of the uterus (hysterectomy) can sometimes be used to treat signs and symptoms associated with endometriosis, such as heavy menstrual bleeding and painful menses due to uterine cramping, in those who don't want to become pregnant. Even when the ovaries are left in place, a hysterectomy may still have a long-term effect on your health, especially if you have the surgery before age 35.
Finding a doctor with whom you feel comfortable is crucial in managing and treating endometriosis. You may want to get a second opinion before starting any treatment to be sure you know all of your options and the possible outcomes.
If your pain persists or if finding a treatment that works takes some time, you can try measures at home to relieve your discomfort.
Some report relief from endometriosis pain after acupuncture treatment. However, little research is available on this — or any other — alternative treatment for endometriosis. If you're interested in pursuing this therapy in the hope that it could help you, ask your doctor to recommend a reputable acupuncturist. Check with your insurance company to see if the expense will be covered.
If you're dealing with endometriosis or its complications, consider joining a support group for women with endometriosis or fertility problems. Sometimes it helps simply to talk to other women who can relate to your feelings and experiences. If you can't find a support group in your community, look for one online.
Your first appointment will likely be with either your primary care physician or a gynecologist. If you're seeking treatment for infertility, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in reproductive hormones and optimizing fertility (reproductive endocrinologist).
Because appointments can be brief and it can be difficult to remember everything you want to discuss, it's a good idea to prepare in advance of your appointment.
For endometriosis, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Make sure that you understand everything your doctor tells you. Don't hesitate to ask your doctor to repeat information or to ask follow-up questions for clarification.
Some potential questions your doctor might ask include: