March is endometriosis awareness month! Whether you’re wondering if you have endometriosis, or you’ve never heard anything about it, this quick primer will help you know what to look out for.
Endometriosis is a medical condition that causes the tissue that normally lines the uterus—endometrium, to grow outside of the uterus. It generally affects people with uteruses from their teens to their early 40’s. Sometimes this condition has no symptoms, other times it can cause painful periods and infertility. At least 5 million people in the US have endometriosis, but the number is likely higher, since many people don’t realize they even have it.
How does it work?
The tissue inside of your uterus is called endometrium. Each month, your hormones cause the endometrium to thicken in preparation for ovulation. If pregnancy results, the fertilized egg attaches to the tissue and begins to grow. When you’re not pregnant, the uterine lining sheds - causing that wonderful process called menstruation.
If someone has endometriosis, the tissue develops outside of the uterus, most commonly on ovaries, fallopian tubes, and the tissue lining the pelvis. Tissue outside of the uterus can’t exit the body during menstruation, so although it thickens and breaks down with each menstrual cycle just like it would inside the uterus, it has no way to exit the body and becomes trapped.
When this tissue develops on the ovaries, it can create fluid filled sacs (cysts). Endometriosis can also cause scarring of the reproductive organs, which may cause the reproductive organs to stick together. These issues can create fertility challenges in people who hope to become pregnant.
What are the symptoms?
- Painful periods with pelvic, abdominal, or lower back cramps
- Pain during sex, especially intercourse
- Painful bowel movements or urination, especially on your period
- Heavy periods
Always consult a doctor if you’re suffering from any of the symptoms listed above.
Are some people more likely to get endometriosis?
Endometriosis can affect anyone who menstruates, but it’s most common for people who menstruate in their 30s and 40s. Other risk factors include family members with endometriosis, never having children, and short menstrual cycles.
What causes endometriosis?
The exact cause of endometriosis hasn’t been determined yet, but scientists do know that estrogen makes the problem worse.
Sometimes endometriosis occurs due to a condition called retrograde menstruation. In a person with retrograde menstruation, instead of menstrual blood and tissue flowing out of the body through the cervix, it flows back into the body through the fallopian tubes.
How can I prevent endometriosis?
There’s no sure way to prevent endometriosis, but you can reduce your chances of developing it by keeping your estrogen levels lower. This may include switching to hormonal birth control with lower doses of estrogen, reducing alcohol and caffeine and staying physically active.
How is endometriosis treated?
- Birth control pills. Birth control pills can be used to help lower the amount of estrogen in your body. While generally an effective treatment for endometriosis, birth control pills can’t be used if you’re trying to get pregnant.
- Hormone therapy. Hormone therapy can also be used to lower estrogen levels. Like birth control pills, this method of treatment will also prevent pregnancy.
- Over the counter, anti-inflammatory pain medicine (NSAIDs). Options include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve). NSAIDs can reduce bleeding and pain.
- Laparoscopy, a surgery that removes implants and scar tissue. This surgery may help fertility for people who want to become pregnant.
Endometriosis is still a poorly understood condition but you’re not alone. If you think you’re possibly suffering from endometriosis, please seek treatment from a period-positive medical professional. You can also seek support from organizations like the Endometriosis Network in Canada, and the US-based Endometriosis Association. As always, feel empowered to advocate for your own health - you deserve it!
Our guest blogger is Kate Willett - a freelance writer located in Los Angeles, CA. She writes about health, politics, and comedy. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. Photography courtesy of Ed Uthman.