What are fibroids? Uterine growths that appear during childbearing years, fibroids may be as small as seedlings or large enough to distort the uterus beyond its normal size. While these growths are non-cancerous, they can still cause a great deal of discomfort and even affect a woman’s fertility.
Unfortunately, many women will develop fibroids at some point in their lives. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, 70% of white women and 80% of African American women have fibroids by age 50. Read on to learn what causes fibroids as well as the options available for treating this unpleasant condition.
What Causes Fibroids?
Uterine fibroids occur when stem cells in the smooth tissue of the uterus divide, creating a mass. Doctors don’t know why some women develop uterine fibroids and other do not. However, the condition seems to have a hereditary component. If a woman’s mother or sister has fibroids, she has a higher risk of developing the condition. Additionally, uterine fibroids can occur as a result of genetic changes, growth factors, and hormones. Doctors believe that fibroid production tends to decrease after menopause, because of the decline in estrogen and progesterone; fibroids contain more receptors for these hormones than typical uterine muscle cells.
The following factors may increase a woman’s risk for developing fibroids:
- Race (African American women are at a higher risk)
- Early menstruation
- Birth control usage
- Having a vitamin D deficiency
- Consuming a diet with large amounts of red meat
- Drinking alcohol
Fibroids Symptoms and Signs
Some women who have fibroids don’t know it. That’s because the condition doesn’t always have noticeable symptoms. Typically, the location, size, and number of fibroids a patient has determine how severe the symptoms are. The most common signs of uterine fibroids include:
- Heavy periods or periods lasting longer than 7 days
- Bleeding or spotting between periods
- Pelvic pain and pressure
- Frequent urination or trouble urinating
- Pain in the back or legs
If you suffer severe bleeding or pain, don’t hesitate to see your doctor.
Getting a Fibroids Diagnosis
Your doctor may diagnose uterine fibroids during a typical pelvic exam. If fibroids aren’t causing you pain or distress, it’s likely that no further treatment will be needed. However, if you’re suffering irregular bleeding and/or pain, your doctor may recommend an ultrasound to confirm the presence of fibroids and measure their size. He or she may also perform a complete blood count and other lab tests to rule out anemia and other underlying conditions. In rare cases, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) may be needed to determine the size and location of fibroids that are disrupting quality of life.
Best Fibroids Treatment
Because many women with fibroids experience few if any symptoms, the best treatment for the condition is often watchful waiting. Most fibroids have little impact on a woman’s quality of life or ability to conceive and bear children. In many cases, these slow-growing tumors shrink or go away on their own after menopause, when estrogen levels drop. If you opt for the watchful waiting approach to fibroid treatment, you might want to take anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen to alleviate your discomfort. However, these come with side effects and risks, especially when taken long term, so more natural anti-inflammatory treatments may be warranted.
If your fibroids are causing severe pain, irregular bleeding, or fertility problems, you may need medication or even surgery to correct the problem. Gn-RH agonists (gonadotropin-releasing hormone) work by blocking estrogen production and shrinking fibroids. However, because these drugs cause hot flashes and other negative symptoms, they are typically recommended only for the short term.
Your doctor may recommend a progestin-releasing IUD (intrauterine device) to alleviate the heavy menstrual bleeding associated with this condition. However, this treatment option only alleviates symptoms; it doesn’t make fibroids disappear.
If fibroids are severe, your doctor may suggest MRI-guided focused ultrasound surgery or another non-invasive surgical treatment to alleviate your symptoms. Performed on an outpatient basis, this treatment involves the use of sound waves to heat and destroy fibroids. The procedure is performed inside an MRI machine and causes little to no discomfort.
In more severe cases, doctors may recommend uterine artery embolization, in which embolic agents are injected into the arteries to cut off blood to fibroids. However, this treatment can compromise blood flow to the ovaries or other organs.
The only permanent solution for uterine fibroids, hysterectomy is reserved for the most severe cases in which pain and menstrual bleeding are compromising quality of life. It’s important to know that hysterectomy is a serious procedure that terminates a woman’s ability to bear children down the line. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, a third to a half of all the hysterectomies performed in the U.S. each year are because of fibroids.