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Understanding endometriosis

Sarah Wassner Flynn is a New York City-based writer. She's contributed to magazines such as CosmoGIRL!, National Geographic Kids, Runner's World, Women's Health, Prevention and MetroSports New York. She is also the author of The Book of ...

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March is National Endometriosis Awareness Month, calling attention to this painful health problem affecting millions of women worldwide. Here is more information on the symptoms, causes and treatment of endometriosis.

EndometriosisChances are, you or someone you know suffers the excruciating pain and seemingly endless frustration tied to endometriosis, a disease in which uterine tissue grows outside the uterus. This disease effects more than five million women in the United States alone, and more than 70 million worldwide. The debilitating cramps, heavy bleeding, nausea and infertility caused by endometriosis make for an agonizing ordeal. But the good news is that it this reproductive disease is treatable -- if you catch it soon enough.

WHAT IS ENDOMETRIOSIS?

Every month, the tissue inside of the uterus (called the endometrium), increases in volume as it prepares to receive a fertilized egg. If that does not occur, the tissue will break down, and healthy women then get a normal period. Those women with endometriosis, however, end up with the tissue distributed elsewhere in the pelvis area, the bladder, bowel, colon or intestines. This causes internal bleeding and swelling of the areas in which the tissue is adhered, causing intense pain and other debilitating symptoms.

SYMTPOMS OF ENDOMETRIOSIS

No need to panic if you experience typical cramping or aching when you get your period. But any severe pain centralized in your pelvis, lower back or stomach could be due to endometriosis. Other symptoms include pain during or after sex, painful bowel movements or urination during your period, heavy or long periods, spotting and fatigue.

Be aware that you can also have endometriosis without symptoms -- some women often get diagnosed with endometriosis when they have trouble getting pregnant. Be sure to talk to your doctor if you have a family history of endometriosis (especially if your mom or sister have it) or have long or heavy periods -- even if you are pain-free.

TREATMENT FOR ENDOMETRIOSIS

Though there is no known cure for endometriosis, there are options to treat your symptoms.

Medication: If you are not planning to get pregnant anytime soon, your doctor will most likely prescribe birth control pills, and possibly anti-inflammatories to treat the pain.

Another possibility are drugs designed specifically to treat endometriosis by postponing ovulation (basically, forcing you into menopause), which reduces the amount of estrogen in your body. Less estrogen in the body shrinks the painful lesions caused by endometriosis and decreases your discomfort. However, you may be faced with aggravating menopausal-like side effects, such as hot flashes, vaginal dryness, headaches or insomnia.

Any drugs taken to treat endometriosis will most likely have to be taken on a continuous basis – symptoms almost always return once the medication is stopped.

Surgery: Some women opt for more extreme measures to treat their endometriosis. These include laparoscopy surgery, which removes endometrial growths and scar tissue. Experts say surgery relieves pain for a year or two in most women, although about 20 percent of women report no improvement after surgery. In rare cases, doctors may recommend a hysterectomy – or removing the uterus. This option, of course, is for women who do not plan to get pregnant and have little other hope in treating their endometriosis.

PREVENTION OF ENDOMETRIOSIS

Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to stop endometriosis from invading your reproductive system, as there is still little research on the actual causes of endometriosis. But if you are worried about getting it, experts say long-term use of birth control hormones may prevent the advancement of endometriosis. Experts also recommend avoiding excess caffeine and alcohol use, and keep a healthy, low-fat diet. Exercise, yoga, and meditation may also help to keep endometriosis and its symptoms at bay.

Struggling with endometriosis? Chat with other women in your situation on the SheKnows.com Message Boards.  And for updates on research and treatment of this condition, check out the Endometriosis Research Center

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