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Uterine fibroidsBy Mayo Clinic staff
Original Article: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/uterine-fibroids/DS00078
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Uterine fibroids are noncancerous growths of the uterus that often appear during your childbearing years. Also called fibromyomas, leiomyomas or myomas, uterine fibroids aren't associated with an increased risk of uterine cancer and almost never develop into cancer.
As many as 3 out of 4 women have uterine fibroids sometime during their lives, but most are unaware of them because they often cause no symptoms. Your doctor may discover fibroids incidentally during a pelvic exam or prenatal ultrasound.
In general, uterine fibroids seldom require treatment. Medical therapy and surgical procedures can shrink or remove fibroids if you have discomfort or troublesome symptoms. Rarely, fibroids can require emergency treatment if they cause sudden, sharp pelvic pain or profuse menstrual bleeding.
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In women who have symptoms, the most common symptoms of uterine fibroids include:
- Heavy menstrual bleeding
- Prolonged menstrual periods — seven days or more of menstrual bleeding
- Pelvic pressure or pain
- Frequent urination
- Difficulty emptying your bladder
- Backache or leg pains
Rarely, a fibroid can cause acute pain when it outgrows its blood supply. Deprived of nutrients, the fibroid begins to die. Byproducts from a degenerating fibroid can seep into surrounding tissue, causing pain and fever. A fibroid that hangs by a stalk inside or outside the uterus (pedunculated fibroid) can trigger pain by twisting on its stalk and cutting off its blood supply.
Fibroid location influences your signs and symptoms:
- Submucosal fibroids. Fibroids that grow into the inner cavity of the uterus (submucosal fibroids) are thought to be primarily responsible for prolonged, heavy menstrual bleeding and are a problem for women attempting pregnancy.
- Subserosal fibroids. Fibroids that project to the outside of the uterus (subserosal fibroids) can sometimes press on your bladder, causing you to experience urinary symptoms. If fibroids bulge from the back of your uterus, they occasionally can press either on your rectum, causing constipation, or on your spinal nerves, causing backache.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if you have:
- Pelvic pain that doesn't go away
- Overly heavy or painful periods
- Spotting or bleeding between periods
- Pain with intercourse
- Difficulty emptying your bladder
- Difficulty moving your bowels
Seek prompt medical care if you have severe vaginal bleeding or sharp pelvic pain that comes on suddenly.
Uterine fibroids develop from the smooth muscular tissue of the uterus (myometrium). A single cell reproduces repeatedly, eventually creating a pale, firm, rubbery mass distinct from neighboring tissue. The growth patterns of uterine fibroids vary — some fibroids may continue to grow slowly; other fibroids may remain the same size or even shrink on their own over time.
Fibroids range in size from seedlings, undetectable by the human eye, to bulky masses that can distort and enlarge the uterus. They can be single or multiple, in extreme cases expanding the uterus so much that it reaches the rib cage.
Doctors don't know the cause of uterine fibroids, but research and clinical experience point to these factors:
- Genetic alterations. Many fibroids contain alterations in genes that are different from those in normal uterine muscle cells.
- Hormones. Estrogen and progesterone, two hormones that stimulate development of the uterine lining during each menstrual cycle in preparation for pregnancy, appear to promote the growth of fibroids. Fibroids contain more estrogen and progesterone receptors than do normal uterine muscle cells.
- Other chemicals. Substances that help the body maintain tissues, such as insulin-like growth factor, may affect fibroid growth.
There are few known risk factors for uterine fibroids, other than being a woman of reproductive age. Other factors that can have an impact on fibroid development include:
- Heredity. If your mother or sister had fibroids, you're at increased risk of also developing them.
- Race. Black women are more likely to have fibroids than are women of other racial groups. In addition, black women have fibroids at younger ages, and they're also likely to have more or larger fibroids.
- Pregnancy and childbirth. Pregnancy and childbirth seem to have a protective effect and may decrease your risk of developing uterine fibroids.
Areas of research
Research examining other potential factors in the development of fibroids continues in these areas:
- Obesity. Some studies have suggested that obese women are at higher risk of fibroids, but other studies have not shown a link.
- Oral contraceptives. So far, strong data exist showing that women who take oral contraceptives have a lower risk of fibroids. This is generally true for all women, except those who start oral contraceptives between ages 13 and 16. Some evidence also shows that progestin-only contraceptives may decrease risk.
Although uterine fibroids usually aren't dangerous, they can cause discomfort and may lead to complications such as anemia from heavy blood loss. In rare instances, fibroid tumors can grow out of your uterus on a stalk-like projection. If the fibroid twists on this stalk, you may develop a sudden, sharp, severe pain in your lower abdomen. If so, seek medical care right away. You may need surgery.
Pregnancy and fibroids
Fibroids usually don't interfere with conception and pregnancy. However, it's possible that fibroids could distort or block your fallopian tubes, or interfere with the passage of sperm from your cervix to your fallopian tubes. Submucosal fibroids may prevent implantation and growth of an embryo, and in these cases, doctors often recommend removing these fibroids before attempting pregnancy.
In other cases, treatment for fibroids during pregnancy isn't necessary. A common complication of fibroids during pregnancy is localized pain, typically between the first and second trimesters. This is usually easily treated with pain relievers. But if you have fibroids and you've experienced repeated pregnancy losses, your doctor may recommend removing one or more fibroids to improve your chances of carrying a baby to term, especially if no other causes of miscarriage can be found and if your fibroids distort the shape of your uterine cavity.
Preparing for your appointment
Your first appointment will likely be with either your primary care provider or a gynecologist.
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.
What you can do
- Write down any symptoms you're experiencing. Include all of your symptoms, even if you don't think they're related.
- Make a list of any medications and vitamin supplements you take. Write down doses and how often you take them.
- Have a family member or close friend accompany you, if possible. You may be given a lot of information at your visit, and it can be difficult to remember everything.
- Take a notebook or notepad with you. Use it to write down important information during your visit.
- Prepare a list of questions to ask your doctor. List your most important questions first, in case time runs out.
For uterine fibroids, some basic questions to ask include:
- How many fibroids do I have? How big are they?
- Are the fibroids located on the inside or outside of my uterus?
- What kinds of tests might I need?
- What medications are available to treat uterine fibroids? Is there a certain medication that can improve my symptoms?
- What side effects can I expect from medication use?
- Under what circumstances do you recommend surgery?
- Will I need a medication before or after surgery?
- What kind of problems can fibroids cause?
- Will uterine fibroids affect my ability to become pregnant?
- Can treatment of uterine fibroids improve my fertility?
- Can you recommend any alternative treatments I might try?
Make sure that you understand completely everything that your doctor tells you. Don't hesitate to ask your doctor to repeat information or to ask follow-up questions for clarification.
What to expect from your doctor
Some potential questions your doctor might ask include:
- How often do you experience these symptoms?
- How long have you been experiencing symptoms?
- How severe are your symptoms?
- Do your symptoms seem to be related to your menstrual cycle?
- Does anything improve your symptoms?
- Does anything make your symptoms worse?
- Do you have a family history of uterine fibroids?
Tests and diagnosis
Uterine fibroids are frequently found incidentally during a routine pelvic exam. Your doctor may feel irregularities in the shape of your uterus, suggesting the presence of fibroids.
If confirmation is needed, your doctor may obtain an ultrasound — a painless exam that uses sound waves to obtain a picture of your uterus — to confirm the diagnosis and to map and measure fibroids. A doctor or technician moves the ultrasound device (transducer) over your abdomen (transabdominal) or places it inside your vagina (transvaginal) to obtain images of your uterus.
Transvaginal ultrasound provides more detail because the probe is closer to the uterus. Transabdominal ultrasound visualizes a larger anatomic area. Sometimes, fibroids are discovered during an ultrasound conducted for a different purpose, such as during a prenatal ultrasound.
Other imaging tests
If traditional ultrasound doesn't provide enough information, your doctor may order other imaging studies, such as:
- Hysterosonography. Also called sonohysterography, this ultrasound variation uses sterile saline to expand the uterine cavity, making it easier to obtain interior images of the uterus. This test may be useful if you have heavy menstrual bleeding despite normal results from traditional ultrasound.
- Hysterosalpingography. This technique uses a dye to highlight the uterine cavity and fallopian tubes on X-ray images. Your doctor may recommend it if infertility is a concern. In addition to revealing fibroids, it can help your doctor determine if your fallopian tubes are open.
- Hysteroscopy. Your doctor inserts a small, lighted telescope called a hysteroscope through your cervix into your uterus. Your doctor injects (instills) saline into your uterus expanding the uterine cavity and allowing your doctor to examine the walls of your uterus and the openings of your fallopian tubes. A hysteroscopy can be performed in your doctor's office.
Imaging techniques that may occasionally be necessary include computerized tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
If you're experiencing abnormal vaginal bleeding, your doctor may want to conduct other tests to investigate potential causes. He or she may order a complete blood count (CBC) to determine if you have iron deficiency anemia because of chronic blood loss. Your doctor may also order blood tests to rule out bleeding disorders and to determine the levels of reproductive hormones produced by your ovaries.
Treatments and drugs
There's no single best approach to uterine fibroid treatment. Many treatment options exist.
Many women with uterine fibroids experience no signs or symptoms. If that's the case for you, watchful waiting (expectant management) could be the best option. Fibroids aren't cancerous. They rarely interfere with pregnancy. They usually grow slowly — or not at all — and tend to shrink after menopause when levels of reproductive hormones drop.
Medications for uterine fibroids target hormones that regulate your menstrual cycle, treating symptoms such as heavy menstrual bleeding and pelvic pressure. They don't eliminate fibroids, but may shrink them. Medications include:
- Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists. Medications called GnRH agonists (Lupron, Synarel, others) treat fibroids by causing your natural estrogen and progesterone levels to decrease, putting you into a temporary postmenopausal state. As a result, menstruation stops, fibroids shrink and anemia often improves. Your doctor may prescribe a GnRH agonist to shrink the size of your fibroids before a planned surgery. Many women have significant hot flashes while using GnRH agonists.
- Progestin-releasing intrauterine device (IUD). A progestin-releasing IUD can relieve heavy bleeding and pain caused by fibroids. A progestin-releasing IUD provides symptom relief only and doesn't shrink fibroids or make them disappear.
- Androgens. Danazol, a synthetic drug similar to testosterone, may effectively stop menstruation, correct anemia and even shrink fibroid tumors and reduce uterine size. However, this drug is rarely used to treat fibroids. Unpleasant side effects, such as weight gain, dysphoria (feeling depressed, anxious or uneasy), acne, headaches, unwanted hair growth and a deeper voice, make many women reluctant to take this drug.
- Other medications. Oral contraceptives or progestins can help control menstrual bleeding, but they don't reduce fibroid size. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which are not hormonal medications, may be effective in relieving pain related to fibroids, but they don't reduce bleeding caused by fibroids.
This operation — the removal of the uterus — remains the only proven permanent solution for uterine fibroids. But hysterectomy is major surgery. It ends your ability to bear children, and if you also elect to have your ovaries removed, it brings on menopause and the question of whether you'll take hormone replacement therapy. Most women with uterine fibroids can choose to keep their ovaries.
In this surgical procedure, your surgeon removes the fibroids, leaving the uterus in place. With myomectomy, there's a risk of fibroid recurrence.
Myomectomy options include:
- Abdominal myomectomy. If you have multiple fibroids, very large fibroids or very deep fibroids, your doctor may use an open abdominal surgical procedure to remove the fibroids.
- Laparoscopic or robotic myomectomy. If the fibroids are small and few in number, you and your doctor may opt for a laparoscopic procedure, which uses slender instruments inserted through small incisions in your abdomen to remove the fibroids from your uterus. Your doctor views your abdominal area on a remote monitor via a small camera attached to one of the instruments. Use of a surgical robot now allows for removal of more fibroids or larger fibroids.
- Hysteroscopic myomectomy. This procedure may be an option if the fibroids are contained inside the uterus (submucosal). A long, slender instrument (hysteroscope) is passed through your vagina and cervix and into your uterus. Your doctor can see and remove the fibroids through the scope. This procedure is best performed by a doctor experienced in this technique.
Focused ultrasound surgery
MRI-guided focused ultrasound surgery (FUS) is a noninvasive treatment option for uterine fibroids that preserves your uterus.
This procedure is performed while you're inside of a specially crafted MRI scanner that allows doctors to visualize your anatomy, and then locate and destroy (ablate) fibroids inside your uterus without making an incision. Focused high-frequency, high-energy sound waves are used to target and destroy the fibroids. One or two treatment sessions are done in an on- and off-again fashion, sometimes spanning several hours.
Because it's a newer technology, researchers are learning more about the long-term safety and effectiveness of FUS. Research continues, but so far data collected show that FUS for uterine fibroids is safe and very effective.
Other minimally invasive procedures for fibroids
Certain procedures can destroy uterine fibroids without actually removing them through surgery. They include:
- Myolysis. In this laparoscopic procedure, an electric current or laser destroys the fibroids and shrinks the blood vessels that feed them. A similar procedure called cryomyolysis freezes the fibroids. The safety, effectiveness and associated risk of fibroid recurrence of myolysis and cryomyolysis have yet to be determined.
- Endometrial ablation. This treatment, performed with a specialized instrument inserted into your uterus, uses heat, microwave energy, hot water or electric current to destroy the lining of your uterus, either ending menstruation or reducing your menstrual flow. Endometrial ablation is effective in stopping abnormal bleeding, but doesn't affect fibroids outside the interior lining of the uterus.
- Uterine artery embolization. Small particles (embolic agents) injected into the arteries supplying the uterus cut off blood flow to fibroids, causing them to shrink. This technique, performed by an interventional radiologist, is proving effective in shrinking fibroids and relieving the symptoms they can cause. Advantages over surgery include no incision and a shorter recovery time. Complications may occur if the blood supply to your ovaries or other organs is compromised.
Some Internet sites and consumer health books promote alternative treatments, such as specific dietary recommendations, enzymes, hormone creams or homeopathy.
Research is necessary to determine whether dietary practices or other methods can help prevent or treat fibroids. So far, there's no scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of these techniques.
Although researchers continue to study the causes of fibroid tumors, little scientific evidence is available on how to prevent them. Preventing uterine fibroids may not be possible, but only a small percentage of these tumors require treatment.
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