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Endometriosis

Description

An in-depth report on the causes, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of endometriosis

Alternative Names

Hysterectomy

Complications

Endometriosis is a chronic disease that is difficult to diagnose and to treat. Without treatment, endometriosis gets progressively worse in 65% to 80% of patients. Even with treatment, endometriosis continues to advance in 20% of patients. Cysts and implants may grow and spread to other parts of the pelvis, and in very severe cases, to the urinary or intestinal tracts. Eventually adhesions may form. These are dense, web-like structures of scar tissue that can attach to nearby organs and cause pain, infertility, and intestinal obstruction.

Pain

The most common problem for women with endometriosis is pain, which can significantly impair the quality of life. The pain experienced around menstruation can be so debilitating that up to 25% of women with the condition can be incapacitated for two to six days of each month. In severe cases, regular activities may be curtailed for up to two weeks per month. Sleeping problems have been reported in three quarters of patients, mostly due to pain.

Infertility

The medical literature indicates that endometriosis may account for as many as 30% of infertility cases. Some evidence suggests that between 30% and 50% of women with endometriosis are infertile. Often, however, it is difficult to determine if endometriosis is the primary cause of infertility, particularly in women have mild endometriosis. In an attempt to determine the chances for infertility with endometriosis, researchers have come up with a staging system based on findings during diagnostic surgery.

It should be noted that endometriosis rarely causes an absolute inability to conceive, but, nevertheless, it can contribute to it both directly and indirectly.

Direct Effect of Endometrial Cysts. Endometrial cysts may directly prevent infertility in a number of ways.

  • If implants occur in the fallopian tubes, they may block the egg's passage.
  • Implants that occur in the ovaries prevent the release of the egg.
  • Severe endometriosis can eventually form rigid webs of scar tissue (adhesions) between the uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes, thereby preventing the transfer of the egg to the tube.

Immune Factors and the Inflammatory Response. Researchers are focusing on defects in the immune system that not only may be responsible for endometriosis in the first place but may also cause the infertility associated with endometriosis. Even in early stage endometriosis, investigators have observed increased immune system activity. It is possible that in such cases, the body perceived this foreign endometrial implants as hostile, and launches an attack.

In this process, the body over produces specific immune factors that contribute to infertility, such as the following:

  • Cytokines. Cytokines are very potent immune factors that, when overproduced, cause damage and inflammation in the very regions that are directed to protect. Such damage could produce scarring and obstructions that interfere with implantation and development of a fertilized egg. In severe endometriosis, researchers have also observed inflammation in the fluid surrounding the uterus, which could create a hostile environment for the sperm. In one laboratory test, slower sperm were noted in fluid taken from women with moderate or severe endometriosis, although not in mild endometriosis.
  • Prostaglandins. Elevated levels of these factors not only produce inflammation but increase uterine contractions. (Women with endometriosis have a higher than average risk for miscarriage.)
  • Other Immune Factors. Growth factors (which stimulate growth of new blood vessels) and toxins produce by the implants could impair fertility.

Other Conditions Linking Endometriosis and Infertility. Researchers have sometimes noted unusually low levels of specific substances that enable a fertilized egg to adhere to the uterine lining. (Such abnormalities are more often a factor in infertility in women with mild to moderate endometriosis than in those with severe cases.)

One study found that the eggs in women with endometriosis appeared to have more genetic abnormalities than those in women without the disorder.

Effects on Other Parts of the Pelvic Region

Implants can also occur in the bladder (although rare) and cause pain and even bleeding during urination. Also rarely, implants form in the intestine and cause painful bowel movements, constipation, or diarrhea. (Hormonal treatments, the standard therapies for endometriosis, are not helpful in such cases, and surgery may be needed.)

Cancers

Endometriosis has characteristics that are similar to cancerous tumors, including cellular invasion of other tissues, unrestrained growth, development of new blood vessels, and impaired ability of cells to naturally self-destruct. It is not a malignant disease, however, but experts have been debating for years whether it represents any significant danger.

The possible risks for ovarian and endometrial cancers are of specific concern. Some researchers have identified certain genetic mutations that may transform endometrial cells into ovarian or endometrial cancers in rare cases. (Some evidence suggests that ovarian cancer associated with endometriosis may differ from most ovarian cancer cases, and, in fact, have a better outlook.)

Of additional concern are studies suggesting that women with endometriosis have a higher risk for other cancers, particularly for early-onset breast cancer and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL). On a somewhat encouraging note, in one 2002 study, among all the cancers, including breast and ovarian, the only one significantly associated with endometriosis was NHL.

Emotional Effects

The emotional effect of severe endometriosis can be almost as devastating as the pain. It can effect marriages and work. In one survey conducted by the Endometriosis Association, patients reported the following emotional effects from this disease:

  • 84% of patients reported feeling depressed during periods of pain.
  • 75% felt irritable.
  • More than half reported feelings of anxiety and anger.
  • About 20% said they felt hopeless.

In one study, during the days around menstruation 30% of women with endometriosis increased their alcohol intake compared to 14% of women with other gynecological problems and only 9.5% of women with no gynecological disorders.

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