The Truth About Endometriosis

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(Photo: Flickr)

That time of the month is most likely your least favorite time of the month, we know. Cramps, headaches, bloating and an overall mood change that you just cannot shake. It's tough being a Womanista!

For many women, the common period symptoms are much more then an annoyance, they are extremely painful and detrimental to their feminine health. Northwestern Hospital OBGYN, Dr. Scott Hite has worked with patients for over two decades on how to treat and deal with one of the culprits of painful periods: endometriosis. "Endometriosis is a disease that typically surprises my patients. It's not something commonly discussed even though it affects millions of women each year. They usually assume they have awful period symptoms and that is normal," explains Hite. What women are not taking note of is that their seemingly painful periods are actually a disease that can be treated. According to the Endometriosis Foundation, an estimated 1 in 10 women suffer from endometriosis, many of those undiagnosed.

What Is Endometriosis?
Endometriosis occurs when tissue that is found in areas outside the uterus causes pelvic pain. The tissue is stimulated by hormones, "Your body responds when stimulated; it reacts and produces inflammation and swelling almost protecting itself." This swelling does not only cause severe pain in the abdomen but also scarring and adhesions in extreme cases.

"Unfortunately endometriosis is still somewhat unexplained, the cause is unknown and so is the cure," explains Hite. The Endometriosis Foundation suggests that the disease can affect women of all ages including post-menopausal. They have found a lineage to women in families with multiple cases of the disease, however not overly prevalent one way or another.

What to Look For
"The symptoms of endometriosis tend to be confused or misinterpreted, I have had patients live with endometriosis for years thinking they had IBS or it was normal to have painful menstrual cycles," says Hite. Only you know your body and being honest with your doctor about your feminine health is important in assessments. According to Hite, symptoms may include:

  • Painful periods
  • Painful sexual intercourse
  • Excessive bleeding and/or bleeding between cycles
  • Infertility
  • Painful bowel movements or urination
  • Cysts

At your annual pap smear, your doctor is already performing a pelvic exam which while important for other potential concerns and checks, is not likely to determine endometriosis. "After discussing with your doctor symptoms you have, inquire about an ultrasound. The ultrasound imaging will identify cysts associated with endometriosis. [Your doctor] will most likely require a laparoscopy which will be performed by a surgeon." While a laparoscopy sounds somewhat daunting and invasive, this will give a more straight forward answer. The surgeon will look inside your abdomen for signs of endometriosis and test the tissue.

Treatment
As there is no cure as of yet, the treatment of endometriosis is somewhat controversial. Odds are, if you have been suffering from painful endometriosis, you have already tried the over-the-counter pain relievers to no avail. "There is no one size fits all with this disease, everyone is different and we take a look at the whole picture before determining a treatment plan," explains Hite. "From nutrition, diet and exercise to hormone balances and if a surgical option makes sense."

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Hormone evaluations and tests can also help mediate symptoms. "For some patients, using hormone contraceptions to help control the hormones responsible for the buildup of tissue helps. [This] results in lighter and shorter periods and reduces the inflammation causing the pain." The Endometriosis Foundation reports that gonadotropin-releasing hormones are an option, causing a similar result for women that choose not to use contraception.

The most debated and extreme solution currently is a keyhole excision surgery, laparoscopically performed, which is not offered in all states. The surgery removes endometrial lesions by either being cut or burned away.

Lifestyle changes may help moderate symptoms, adjusting diet and nutrition to aid in feeling better overall. Talk to your medical professional and take notice of what you feel each month. There are additional support groups and message boards that can help you feel like you are not alone in your battle.