“That’s normal.” You’ve lost count of the times you’ve been told your symptoms are not unusual. You call in sick again. Leaving the house is a struggle. When you do venture out, you make sure you know where all the public restrooms are (and you keep a change of clothes on hand). The heavy bleeding, irregular periods, stabbing pain, exhaustion, bloating that doesn’t go away, the battle with infertility…the list goes on. And some days are harder than others.
Could you be one of four women who suffer from uterine fibroids?
Most women will develop fibroids at some point during their childbearing years. 70 percent of Caucasians and 80 percent of African Americans have fibroids by age 50, according to the National Institute of Health. Many cases are asymptomatic. For women who have no symptoms, it’s common to be unaware of fibroid growth.
It’s important to be aware of uterine fibroids for two reasons:
- Uterine fibroids are common.
- Symptoms are not as common.
What are Uterine Fibroids?
Uterine fibroids are non-cancerous tumors that grow within the smooth muscular tissue of the uterus. In medical terms, they are called leiomyomas or myomas. The size and quantity of uterine fibroids vary. Tumors range from a single microscopic seedling to multiple growths up to eight inches or more. Large fibroids can even cause the uterus to expand to a size typical for a six- or seven-month pregnancy. The tumors aren’t usually dangerous and do not spread within the body. Some women experience several negative side effects, however. Side effects may include heavy bleeding, pelvic and/or back pain, and fullness in the abdomen.
Uterine Fibroid Symptoms
If you suffer from uterine fibroids, you know that your symptoms are more than an inconvenience. At least 5-10% of premenopausal women with uterine fibroids experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Heavy menstrual bleeding
- Pain or pressure in the abdomen
- Lower back pain
- Pelvic pain
- Pelvic fullness
- Frequent urination
- Painful intercourse
If you have unexplained pain, swelling or pressure in your abdomen or if your periods last beyond 3-5 days, what you’re feeling is not “normal”. While it’s common for abnormal bleeding to occur, you should call your doctor if your menstrual bleeding is so heavy that you are using multiple tampons and/or pads an hour. Bleeding may also be characterized by large clots. Symptoms unrelated to your menstrual cycle may include increased frequency in urination during the daytime, constipation and even vaginal or abdominal pain during intercourse. Secondary side effects include:
- Overall feeling of exhaustion and fatigue.
- Concern or frustration over soiling clothing, bed linens, etc.
- Interference with your daily routine and/or social life.
- Decrease in physical activity.
- Anxiety over traveling and/or leaving the house.
- Frustration with the unpredictability of the length or onset of your period.
Risk factors for Uterine Fibroids
Some women are at increased risk of developing uterine fibroids. Women who are in their early to mid 40’s are at the most common age.
Increased risk factors include:
- High blood pressure
- Women who have never had children
- Family history of fibroids
- Women who are of African-American descent
How are uterine fibroids diagnosed?
Uterine fibroids are typically diagnosed during a routine pelvic exam. Your doctor may notice that the shape of your uterus feels irregular. An ultrasound is the next step to confirm the presence of fibroids. The ultrasound device may be placed over your abdomen (transabdominal) or inside the vaginal canal (transvaginal) or both. Using sound waves, a technician will take images of your uterus. If fibroids are detected on ultrasound, their size and quantity will be mapped and measured. It’s common for your doctor to order lab tests at this time, as well. Establishing a baseline with a complete blood count (CBC) is especially important if you are experiencing significant blood loss. Your doctor may want to rule out anemia, blood disorders, and thyroid problems.
Additional medical imaging studies your doctor may recommend:
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): An MRI can detect the size and location of fibroids and/or other tumors with more precision and detail. It will help guide the next steps for treatment.
Hysterosonography: Also known as a saline infusion sonogram, this is a test in which a saline solution is used to expand the uterine cavity. It yields images of submucosal fibroids and the endometrium lining of the uterus.
Hysterosalpingography: During this test, a dye is used to reveal the uterus and fallopian tubes on X-ray. If you are suffering from infertility, a hysterosalpingography may be recommended to see whether or not there is an opening in your fallopian tubes.
Hysteroscopy: During a hysteroscopy, saline is injected into the uterus through a small, lighted telescope. As the uterine cavity expands, your doctor can perform a more comprehensive examination of the uterus and your fallopian tubes.
If you think you may have uterine fibroids, it’s important to speak with your OB-GYN. Your doctor can diagnose or rule out fibroids through examination and/or further testing. If you are diagnosed with uterine fibroids, there are surgical and nonsurgical treatment options available. To learn more, download this free Guide to Uterine Fibroids which includes a checklist of symptoms and treatment options to discuss with your doctor.