What are fibroids?
Uterine fibroids are tumors or growths, made up of muscle cells and other tissues that grow within the wall of the uterus (or womb). Although fibroids are sometimes called tumors, they are almost always benign (not cancerous). The medical term for fibroids is uterine leiomyomata (you-ter-in lie-oh-my-oh-mah-tah). Fibroids can grow as a single growth or in clusters (or groups). Their size can vary from small, like an apple seed (or less than one inch), to even larger than a grapefruit, or eight inches across or more.
Why should women know about fibroids?
Fibroids can drastically alter a woman’s quality of life. Uterine fibroids are the most common, benign tumors in women of childbearing age, but no one knows exactly what causes them. A very large fibroid can be the size of a 2nd trimester pregnancy and press against the bowel or bladder, causing constipation or urinary frequency. Fibroids are also associated with infertility, miscarriage, and premature labor. Not all women with fibroids have symptoms, but the most common complaint is pain and heavy menstrual bleeding (changing a pad or tampon every hour)-which can lead to iron deficiency anemia.
Who gets fibroids?
What are the symptoms of fibroids?
Most fibroids do not cause any symptoms, but some women with fibroids can have:
What are the different types of fibroids?
Fibroids are classified by location. The most common type is intramural fibroids, which grow within the uterine wall and can cause heavy menstrual flow, urinary urgency, and/or back and pelvic pain. The least common type is Submucosal fibroids, which start under the uterine lining and may protrude into the uterine lining. This type can cause heavy bleeding and are more closely related to infertility. Some fibroids are pedunculated, meaning they grow on stalks –Subserosal Fibroids grown on the outer surface of the uterus and can sometimes grow on a stalk. This type of fibroid tends to cause pressure and rarely will twist which will be painful.
What causes fibroids?
No one knows for sure what causes fibroids. Researchers have some theories, but most likely, fibroids are the result of many factors interacting with each other. These factors could be hormonal (affected by estrogen levels), genetic (running in families), environmental, or a combination of all three. Because no one knows for sure what causes fibroids, we also don't know what causes them to grow or shrink. For the most part, fibroids stop growing or shrink after menopause. But, this is not true for all women with fibroids.
Can fibroids turn into cancer?
Fibroids are almost always benign, or not cancerous, and they rarely turn into cancer (less than 0.1 percent of cases). Having fibroids does not increase a woman's chances of getting cancer of the uterus.
How do I know for sure that I have fibroids?
Your doctor may find that you have fibroids when you see her or him for a regular pelvic exam to check your uterus, ovaries, and vagina. Often, a doctor will describe how small or how large the fibroids are by comparing their size to the size your uterus would be if you were pregnant.
For example, you may be told that your fibroids have made your uterus the size it would be if you were 8 weeks pregnant. Your doctor can do imaging tests, or tests that create a "picture" of the inside of your body without surgery, in order to confirm that you have fibroids. These tests might include:
Besides imaging tests, you also might need a surgery to know for sure if you have fibroids. These could include:
What is the treatment for fibroids?
The first step in determining your options is a thorough evaluation starting with your gynecologist. Talk with your doctor about the best way to treat your fibroids. She or he will consider a number of things before helping you choose a treatment. Some of these things include:
If you have fibroids, but do not have any symptoms, you may not need any treatment. But your doctor will check during your regular exams to see if they have grown.
If you have fibroids and have mild symptoms, your doctor might only suggest pain medication.
Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, or other painkillers such as acetaminophen can be used for mild pain. If pain becomes worse, your doctor can prescribe a stronger painkiller.
One type of drug used to treat fibroids is called gonadotropin releasing hormone agonists (GnRHa) –like Lupron. This type of drug can decrease the size of the fibroids. Sometimes it is used before surgery, to shrink the fibroids, making them easier to remove. Side effects can include hot flushes, depression, not being able to sleep, decreased sex drive, and joint pain. Anti-hormonal agents, such as a drug called mifepristone, also can stop or slow the growth of fibroids. These drugs only offer temporary relief from the symptoms of fibroids; once you stop the therapy, the fibroids often grow back.
Other drugs used to treat fibroids include, birth control pills, the androgen drug danazol (Danolcrine), medroxyprogesterone acetate (Depo-Provera), and progestin-releasing intrauterine device (Mirena), which help control bleeding. Reloxifen (Evista) helps shrink fibroids but is prescribed only for postmenopausal women.
If you have fibroids with moderate or severe symptoms, surgery may be the best way to treat them. Here are the options:
Uterine Fibroid Embolization (UFE) or Uterine Artery Embolization (UAE)
Uterine fibroid embolization (UFE) is a treatment that cuts off the blood supply to the uterus and the fibroids so they shrink. UFE is proving to be an alternative to hysterectomy and myomectomy. The recovery time is also shorter, and there is a much lower risk of needing a blood transfusion than for these surgeries. Many women can have UFE and go home the same day. There is a small risk of infection in the treated fibroid, but these are usually managed with antibiotics. Recent studies also suggest that most fibroid tumors are not likely to re-grow after UFE, although more long-term data is needed.
Not all fibroids can be treated with UFE. All patients must first be evaluated with ultrasound or
MRI to make sure the fibroids will respond well to this treatment. Doctors called interventional radiologists perform UFE. The best candidates for UFE are women who:
Sometimes after UFE, the particles that are put into the fibroids to cut off their blood supply have traveled to the ovaries. In a few women, the ovaries then stop working for a short time or permanently. Although researchers know that UFE may affect how ovaries function, they are unsure of how exactly UFE affects fertility. If you want to have children in the future, you should talk with your doctors about the small, but definite risk of UFE causing you to go into early menopause. Too few women have gotten pregnant after UFE for researchers to know if there is an increased risk of pregnancy complications.
ACOG Practice Bulletin. “Alternatives to Hysterectomy in the management of leiomyoma”. August 2008.
“What to do about fibroids”. Harvard Women’s Health Watch –July 2008
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