Apr 6, 2005

Fibroids

Perhaps the first time you ever heard of fibroids was the day you were diagnosed as having them. Or perhaps you suspect you have fibroids, but can't seem to get a definite diagnosis. If your mother or sister has them, you may wonder if you will get them, too.

It can be difficult to find thorough, reliable information about fibroids. If fibroids are causing problems for you, you may find it hard to make decisions about the treatment that is best for you.

On these pages I've put together the results of my own research and experience. You'll also find links to other sources of helpful information.

What are fibroids?


A fibroid is a benign tumor that grows in or on the uterus. Fibroids are the most common tumor of the female reproductive organs. They are often embedded in the wall of the uterus, but they may also be attached to the outside, or to the inner lining.

Fibroids can be any size. The largest recorded fibroid weighed 140 pounds! But normally fibroids are relatively small, ranging from the size of a pea (or smaller) to a grapefruit. If you have fibroids, your doctor may describe their combined size as it relates to the number of weeks in a pregnancy.

Other names for fibroids: myomas, fibromyomas, leiomyomas, leiomyomata uteri

If you want to know what large fibroids look like, this article on uterine fibroids includes a color photo. And here is a photo, very detailed, showing all three kinds of fibroids.

What causes fibroids?


No one really knows what causes fibroids. Anywhere from 20% to 50% of all women have them, and many women have them without ever knowing it. They appear more often in women over 35, and in women of African heritage. However, women of any age and ethnic background may have fibroids. Their growth is stimulated by estrogen, so women taking birth control pills or estrogen replacement therapy, women who are pregnant, or women who experience increased estrogen levels during perimenopause may experience symptoms caused by enlarged fibroids. At this time, there is no way to predict which women will get fibroids.

Can fibroids be prevented?


Since we don't know what causes them, we really don't know how to prevent them. Because their growth is linked to estrogen, fibroids usually shrink (and often disappear) after menopause. So perhaps one way to prevent fibroids is to reach menopause!

What are the symptoms?

Many women have fibroids, even large ones, and experience no symptoms. Others experience many unpleasant symptoms, even with small fibroids. Fibroids may cause any or all of these symptoms:

  • Constantly feeling heavy or bloated in the abdomen, feeling as if you have a foreign object in your abdomen
  • An enlarged or distorted uterus, uterus pushed out of its usual position
  • Abdominal swelling that makes you look bloated or pregnant
  • Irregular periods, extremely heavy bleeding during periods, large clots expelled with menstrual blood, unusually long periods, spotting and bleeding between periods, unusually severe menstrual cramps, cramps similar to labor contractions
  • Anemia caused by the excess bleeding
  • Pressure on the bladder, frequent urination, difficulty urinating
  • Pressure on other abdominal organs, possible damage to organs
  • Constipation
  • Painful intercourse, bleeding after intercourse
  • Infertility, miscarriage

Be aware that all of these symptoms may be caused by other conditions. Do not attempt to diagnose yourself and do not assume that you have fibroids based on symptoms alone. It is important to get a diagnosis from a qualified health professional.

How do I know whether I have them?


You need a medical diagnosis. A gynecologist will start by performing a manual pelvic exam. In many cases the doctor will be able to feel and recongize the fibroids at this time. The next step is to confirm the diagnosis with a sonogram (ultrasound). This is an easy, painless procedure. The radiologist will insert a special probe into the vagina to view your uterus, and will also run another probe over the outside of your abdomen to get a different point of view. The doctor should count the fibroids, note their locations, and take their measurements. Be aware that an exact count may not be possible.

Some doctors may use MRI to look for fibroids, but this is an expensive, time-consuming procedure and is not likely to do a better job of finding the fibroids than ultrasound. MRI may be used when other conditions are suspected.

Another diagnostic procedure is hysteroscopy. This involves inserting a tubular instrument through the vagina and cervix, into the uterus. A light shining through the tube allows the doctor to view the interior of the uterus. You may experience spotting and cramps for a couple of days following the procedure. The procedure is not used on pregnant women.

Depending on your symptoms, the doctor may perform an endometrial biopsy. Although this is a fairly simple procedure that can be performed in the doctors office without anesthetic, it is considered surgery. You will need to take a pregnancy test before this procedure, as it is not safe for pregnant women. The doctor will insert an instrument through the cervix and scrape some tissue from inside the uterus. The tissue will be sent to a laboratory for testing. You may experience some cramping, and there may be spotting or other light discharge for a few days.

Are fibroids dangerous?


It would be very rare for uterine fibroids to present a threat to your life. They are almost never malignant. Occasionally, a fibroid may become twisted, cutting off its own blood and oxygen supply, resulting in severe pain which requires immediate surgery. Fibroids are sometimes associated with miscarriages or other problems in pregnancy, so if you have fibroids and plan to have children it is important to discuss this issue with your obstetrician. In the long term, the symptoms caused by large fibroids may have a negative effect on some aspects of your health and well-being. If fibroids are causing discomfort for you, it is a good idea to investigate your options with a gynecologist.

What are the treatments?


See the next post, which will provide a discussion of the various methods of treating fibroids.

What are the Risks


Diagnosis:

Of course, an incorrect diagnosis is possible. Some women report that they have suffered needlessly for months or years because their doctors failed to diagnose fibroids. In some cases, fibroids were diagnosed incorrectly when another condition was the real problem.

It is always wise to get a second opinion before undergoing surgery or other major treatments. Don't be afraid that asking for a second opinion will insult your doctor! Your doctor will probably be glad to provide a referral for you and will likely welcome the additional information. In most cases, the second doctor will probably confirm the first doctor's diagnosis. If they disagree, you may need to get a third opinion to help sort things out.

Second (and third) opinions are routine. In some unusual cases, women with very difficult-to-diagnose conditions may need to consult even more doctors. But don't start opinion-shopping as a way to avoid facing the truth and making a decision!

Surgery:

All surgery has risks! Generally, when routine surgery is performed by competent, experienced doctors on a typical patient, the risks are minimalized. Keep in mind that each patient's situation is different. The type and severity of the risks you face are determined by a number of factors, including your medical history and current condition. You and your doctor should have a frank discussion about the risks your face and what can be done about them.

Medication: There are side effects and risks associated with almost every medication. Some are not very serious, while others can be dangerous. Some of the risks may depend on your own medical history and lifestyle, so it is important to provide complete, honest answers to the questions your doctor, nurse or pharmacist may ask. Sometimes the risks of a medication outweigh the benefits, and you will have to choose another option.

Waiting:

The most obvious risk of a wait-and-see approach is that the condition will get worse. If you are simply waiting, it is important to get regular checkups to monitor your condition.

Cancer:

Less than 1% of fibroids are cancerous. If you choose surgery to treat your fibroids, you will be asked to sign a release that allows the doctor to perform additional surgery in case cancer is found. This is a good idea. Although cancer is not likely, you should be prepared to have it handled quickly and efficiently, just in case.

In the meantime, you should be getting a regular Pap test to check for cervical cancer. If you are over 40, your doctor will probably recommend regular mammograms (to screen for breast cancer) as well. If you have a family history of uterine or ovarian cancer, your should tell your doctor, as there may be other tests you should get.

What is the best treatment?


Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question. The "best" treatment depends entirely on the individual. The type and severity of symptoms you are having, your age, your general health and medical history, your lifestyle and personal preferences, all must be taken into account. In addition to having frank discussions with your doctor, you may find it helpful to visit a support group or discuss your situation with friends who have undergone fibroid treatments. Information is your best tool in making a decision.

Remember, it's your body! You have the right to complete, accurate information about your condition. You have the right to make the ultimate decision about your own treatment. Your doctor, your friends and relatives, people you meet at parties, experts who have books to sell and TV shows to promote -- all of them will have opinions and preferences. They will try to influence you. They may be honest and caring people with good intentions, but they don't necessarily know what will be best for you in the long run. Listen to them and take what they say into account. Then listen to yourself.

What else should I know?


Adenomyosis is often mistaken for fibroids.
See our page of helpful links.

© 2005 Rosemary K. West

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