Millions of American women experience uterine fibroids, though not all experience the same symptoms or the same level of severity. Still, for many women, fibroids can pose a significant imposition on their quality of life, which is why effective treatments have been developed to help women move past fibroids and get on with their lives.
Q. What are uterine fibroids?
A. Uterine fibroids are growths within or on the uterus — a hollow, pear-shaped organ in which a fetus grows during pregnancy. The lower part of the uterus, called the cervix, opens to the vagina. Fibroids may be referred to as “tumors,” but they are not cancerous. Fibroids are very common, with up to 70% of white American women and as many as 80% of black American women developing fibroids by age 50, though often they are small and cause no symptoms.
Q. What causes uterine fibroids?
A. There is no one factor that determines who develops fibroids or why. The risk for developing fibroids increases with age, with women at the greatest risk beginning in their 30s and lasting until menopause. Research has shown that hormones like estrogen and progesterone can cause fibroids to grow, and women produce their highest levels of these hormones during their childbearing years. In fact, after menopause — when the levels of these hormones decrease — fibroids often resolve, shrinking or even disappearing altogether.
Q. What are the health risks related to having uterine fibroids?
A. Generally, the most obvious problem from having fibroids is pain, which is ongoing in the lower back or lower abdomen. Women also often experience heavy menstrual cycles, which can result in anemia. Uterine fibroids can change the shape of the uterus, making it difficult to get pregnant or increasing the risk of preterm labor or miscarriage. Sometimes, fibroids can press against the bowels or the urinary tract, causing constipation or issues with emptying the bladder. In addition, if a large fibroid dies — usually because of insufficient blood flow to keep the tissue alive — a woman can experience a potentially dangerous infection.
Q. How can uterine fibroids be treated?
A. Symptoms of fibroids can be treated through medicinal therapies, such as over-the-counter pain reducers or prescribed hormonal contraceptives or progestational agents that can help with bleeding, though neither of these treatments have been shown to limit the growth of the fibroids themselves. At Tanner, we offer several surgical approaches to fibroid treatment that are extremely common, extremely effective and can be performed with a minimally invasive or even robotic-assisted approach. These include surgeries to preserve the uterus, like myomectomy, which women might consider if planning to have children at a later time, or hysterectomy, which involves removal of the whole uterus. In fact, fibroids are the leading reason women choose to have a hysterectomy in the United States.
For more information about the women’s care services available at Tanner Healthcare for Women, visit TannerHealthcareForWomen.org or call 770-812-3850.