If you know ten people with uteruses, chances are you, or someone you know has suffered from endometriosis. Roughly one in nine Australians develop endometriosis, or ‘endo’ by the time they are 40, and tens of thousands of these people find themselves in hospital every year as a result. But what exactly is endometriosis? And is there any way to get relief from it?
Endometriosis is a disorder characterised by what’s called the endometrium, a tissue similar to the tissue that lines the uterus, growing on the outside. This can, and often does, result in severe pain and discomfort, as well as affecting or creating complications for one’s ovaries, fallopian tubes and other bodily tissues and matter around the pelvis. In more severe cases, the tissue can be found even further away, beyond the pelvic area and associated organs altogether. So why is that such a bad thing? The misplaced tissue thickens to line the uterus irrespective of where it is, then undergoes the process of breaking down and bleeding like a period. When this tissue is outside the uterus, it can’t exit through the vagina, and so becomes trapped within the body.
There are lots of other problems endo can create, particularly with neighbouring organs to the uterus. Cysts, or ‘endometriomas’ can form when endo involves the ovaries. Important tissues can become irritated, scar tissue can form inside the body and bands of fibrous tissue called adhesions can develop, which can cause pelvic tissues, and even organs to stick to one another. Unsurprisingly, these goings-on in the body can be extremely painful for the person enduring them, in particular while menstruating.
The primary symptom that people with endometriosis experience is pelvic pain, in particular during their menstrual cycle. This is typically recorded as pain much more severe than regular cramping, and can also be a pain that gets noticeably worse over time. Other typical symptoms include pain during intercourse, painful bowel movements and/or pain passing urine, excessive bleeding within or outside your regular menstrual cycle and finally, infertility. Other telltale signs of endo can be more inconspicuous symptoms such as fatigue, diarrhea, constipation, bloating and nausea, particularly if they tend to occur around the one’s period.
To deliver the bad news and the good - and in that order, there is no ‘cure’ for endometriosis and it often lasts right up until menopause or beyond. It can also affect fertility, sexual health and wellbeing as well as create a number of other issues within the body. The better news, as promised, is that it is treatable, and a lot of the symptoms can be relieved with the right help.
Finding relief from one or all of these issues will likely take a bit of time, but with a bit of persistence and help from a specialist, a lot of people find healthy and effective ways to relieve the impact of endometriosis.
Excision surgery is currently considered to be the best treatment available, with a majority of people seeing improvements in their symptoms and pain after the procedure. The operation involves cutting all of the visible endometriosis tissue out of the body, which can see long term relief.
In terms of pain management, many people with endo recommend using heating pads, warm baths or even socks filled with rice and heated in the microwave to relieve the muscle pain associated with the disorder. Drinking plenty of fluids and staying hydrated is also encouraged as it can help reduce the bloating and cramping. For more serious assistance, you can invest in something called a Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation Machine, or TENS Machine, which is designed to send specialised vibrations to your muscles that can help reduce pain. Medication can also be an important part of the endo management journey, with ibuprofen, birth control medication and naprogesics being on the list of some things that may help.
If you think you may have endometriosis, or know someone who does, our first and most important recommendation is to see a professional. Depending on the symptoms that are being experienced and their relative severity, there are a number of different treatment avenues you can take. You may wish to start with a GP, endometriosis specialist or gynaecologist, but as your condition becomes better understood there are people working in gastroenterology, urology, endocrinology, pulmonology, physical therapy and many more areas who will be able to best help you find the best course of action for your needs.
* If you are looking for somewhere to start, Health Direct is an Australian government-funded, approved health information service available 24 hours. You can call them on 1800 022 222 or visit https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/