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Endometriosis

Highlights

Endometriosis Symptoms

Endometriosis symptoms vary widely, and sometimes do not occur at all. Symptoms can include:

  • Pelvic pain, especially around the time of menstruation
  • Pain during sexual intercourse
  • Heavy menstrual bleeding
  • Sleep problems
  • Cyclical abdominal pain
  • Intermittent diarrhea and constipation
  • Painful or difficult urination
  • Blood in the urine
  • Some women with endometriosis dont have any symptoms of the disorder

Infertility and Endometriosis

Endometriosis rarely causes a complete inability to conceive, but it can contribute to infertility both directly and indirectly.

Treatment

Treatment options for endometriosis include:

  • Watchful Waiting. Delaying treatment may be most appropriate for women with mild endometriosis or those who are approaching the age of menopause.
  • Drugs. Hormonal drugs are used to reduce endometrial implants. These drugs include oral contraceptives, progestins, gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists, and danazol. Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or acetaminophen may help with pain relief.
  • Surgery. Conservative surgery approaches, such as laparoscopy, remove endometrial implants and cysts but do not remove reproductive organs. Conservative surgery can help improve fertility. Hysterectomy, the surgical removal of the uterus, may be recommended in severe cases of endometriosis, but it does not necessarily cure the condition.

Introduction

Endometriosis is a condition in which the cells that line the uterus grows outside of the uterus in other areas, such as the ovaries. The condition can interfere with a woman's fertility and ability to become pregnant. Endometriosis can also cause severe pelvic pain, especially during menstruation.

Endometriosis is a common gynecological condition. It is a chronic, painful, and often progressive disease in women. However, the causes of endometriosis are unknown, it is widely variable in symptoms and severity, and it is difficult to diagnose.

Endometrial Implants

Endometriosis occurs when cells from the mucus membrane lining the uterus (endometrium) form implants that attach, grow, and function outside the uterus, generally in the pelvic region.

Endometrial cells contain receptors that bind to estrogen and progesterone, which promote uterine growth and thickening. When these cells become implanted in organs and structures outside the uterus, these hormonal activities continue to occur, causing bleeding and scarring.

Endometriosis
Endometriosis is a condition in which cells that normally line the uterus (endometrium) grows on other areas of the body, causing pain and irregular bleeding.

Endometrial implants vary widely in size, shape, and color. Over the years, they may diminish in size or disappear, or they may grow.

  • Early implants are usually very small and look like clear pimples.
  • If they continue to grow they may form flat injured areas (lesions), small nodules, or cysts called endometriomas, which can range from sizes smaller than a pea to larger than a grapefruit.
  • Implants also vary in color; they may be colorless, red, or very dark brown. These so-called chocolate cysts are endometriomas filled with thick, old, dark brown blood that usually appear on the ovaries.

Location of Implants

Implants can form in many areas, most commonly in the following locations in the pelvis:

  • Ovaries
  • Fallopian tubes
  • Uterine surface
  • Cul-de-sac, an area between the uterus and rectum
  • Bowel
  • Bladder
  • Rectum
  • The peritoneum. This is the smooth surface lining that covers the entire wall of the abdomen and folds over inner organs in the pelvic area.

Rarely, remote sites of endometriosis may include the spinal column, nose, lungs, pelvic lymph nodes, the forearm, and the thigh.

Female reproductive anatomy

Click the icon to see an image of the female reproductive anatomy.

Process of Endometriosis

The process of endometriosis mimics menstruation at certain stages:

  • Each month, the exiled endometrial implants respond to the monthly cycle just as they would in the uterus. They fill with blood, thicken, break down and bleed.
  • Products of the endometrial process cannot be shed through the vagina as are menstrual blood and debris. Instead, the implants develop into collections of blood that form cysts, spots, or patches.
  • Lesions may grow or reseed as the cycle continues.

The lesions are not cancerous, but they can develop to the point that they cause obstruction or adhesions (web-like scar tissue) that attach to and bind together nearby pelvic organs, causing pain, inflammation, and sometimes infertility.

[For more information, see In-Depth Report #100: Menstrual disorders for complete description of female reproductive system and menstrual cycle.]

Causes

Endometriosis occurs among women all over the world, but researchers have been unable to determine its cause. A combination of genetic, biologic, and environmental factors may work together to trigger the initial process, produce implantation, and cause subsequent reseeding and spreading of the implants.

Theories of the cause of endometriosis include:

Retrograde Menstruation. Retrograde menstruation occurs during a woman's period, when menstrual tissue flows backward through the fallopian tubes rather than out through the vagina. A theory is that, in some cases, the redistributed uterine tissue attached and grew in areas outside the uterus, forming endometriosis implants. This theory does not fully explain endometriosis, however. Many women have some retrograde menstruation, but not all of them develop endometrial cysts. Consequently, other factors must explain why uterine tissue becomes implanted and grows in areas outside the uterus.

Impaired Immune System. Another theory is that women who develop endometriosis have an impaired immune system that fails to identify and destroy endometrial tissue that grows outside of the uterus. Some researchers theorize that endometriosis represents an autoimmune condition, in which the immune system launches an attack on its own cells and tissue. There appears to be a relatively high incidence of other inflammatory autoimmune disorders (such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus) among women with endometriosis. It is unclear, however, how this response relates to endometriosis itself and whether endometriosis should be treated as an autoimmune condition.

Inflammatory Response. The damage, infertility, and pain produced by endometriosis may be due to an overactive response by the immune system to the early presence of endometrial implants. The body, perceiving the implants as hostile, launches an attack. Levels of large white blood cells called macrophages are elevated in endometriosis. Macrophages produce very potent factors, which include cytokines (particularly those known as interleukins) and prostaglandins. Such factors are known to produce inflammation and damage in tissues and cells.

Risk Factors

About 5 million American women have endometriosis.

Age

Endometriosis can occur in teenagers and adult women of all ages, but most typically occurs in women between the ages of 25 - 40.

Family History

A family history of endometriosis, especially in a mother or sister, increases a womans likelihood of developing it herself.

Not Having Had Children

Pregnancy appears to be protective against endometriosis, while never having had children is associated with a greater risk for the condition. However, endometriosis can still occur in women who have had children.

Menstrual History

Women at higher risk for endometriosis tend to have more problems with menstruation. Those at higher risk usually have a shorter than normal cycle, heavier periods, and longer periods. They may also have begun menstruating at a younger than average age.

Complications

Pain

Adhesions, the dense, web-like structures of scar tissue that can attach to nearby organs, can cause significant pain. Pelvic pain is the most common complaint for women with endometriosis, and it can significantly impair the quality of life, including work and social activities.

Infertility

Infertility is the main complication of endometriosis. Endometriosis is responsible for about a third of cases of female infertility. Endometriosis rarely causes an absolute inability to conceive, but it can contribute to infertility both directly and indirectly:

  • 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.
  • Adhesions that form among the uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes, can prevent the transfer of the egg to the tube.

Effects on Other Parts of the Pelvic Region

Implants can also occur in the bladder (although less commonly) and cause pain and even bleeding during urination. Implants also sometimes form in the intestine and cause painful bowel movements, constipation, or diarrhea.

Symptoms

Not all women with endometriosis experience symptoms. When symptoms occur, pain is the main one. Many women with endometriosis have chronic pain in the pelvic area (the lower part of the trunk of the body). The pain is often a severe cramping that occurs on both sides of the pelvis, radiating to the lower back and rectal area and even down the legs.

The severity of the pain varies widely and does not appear to be related to the extent of the endometriosis itself. In other words, a woman can have very small or few implants and have severe pain, while those with extensive endometriosis may have very few signs of the disorder except for infertility. Large cysts can rupture and cause very severe pain at any time.

Pain caused by endometriosis is associated with:

  • Menstruation. Women with endometriosis typically have heavy or prolonged menstrual bleeding, and very painful menstrual cramps (dysmenorrheal). Women may also experience pelvic pain at other times during their menstrual cycle and they may have spotting or bleeding between periods. Menstrual pain may worsen over time.
  • Sexual Intercourse. Endometriosis can cause pain during or after sexual intercourse (dyspareunia).
  • Urination and Bowel Movements. Pain during defecation or urination may be especially severe during menstrual periods. Women may also experience other gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea, constipation, or bloating.

Diagnosis

Because endometriosis symptoms do not always appear, or may be caused by other conditions, a diagnosis cannot be based on symptoms alone. Laparoscopy, an invasive diagnostic procedure, is the only definitive method for diagnosing endometriosis. However, a trial using hormonal drug may be used to confirm or rule out endometriosis.

Pelvic Exam

After collecting your symptom report and medical history, the doctor will perform a physical and pelvic exam. During the pelvic exam, the doctor will evaluate the size and position of the ovaries and check for tender masses or nodules behind the cervix.

Laparoscopy

Diagnostic laparoscopy is used to confirm a suspected diagnosis of endometriosis and to evaluate the severity of the condition. It may also be used to treat endometriosis. During laparoscopy, the surgeon determines the number, size, and location of endometrial implants and adhesions. This information can help in staging endometriosis and in making treatment decisions.

The procedure involves the doctor making a small incision in the abdomen, and inserting a small thin fiber optic tube (the laparoscope). The laparoscope is equipped with a small telescopic lens, which enables the doctor view the uterus, ovaries, tubes, and peritoneum (lining of the pelvis) on a video monitor. Laparoscopy normally requires a general anesthetic, although the patient can go home the same day. [For more information on laparoscopy, see the "Conservative Surgery" section of this report.]

Pelvic laparoscopy

Click the icon to see an image of laparoscopy.

Imaging Tests

An ultrasound is performed in cases where other conditions are suspected, such as uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts, or ectopic pregnancy. This non-invasive imaging technique can detect endometriomas, cysts that are usually located on the ovaries and filled with thick dark blood. Ultrasound can also pick up cysts larger than 1 cm (about 1/3 inch), but will miss smaller cysts, or small and shallow endometrial implants on the surface of ovaries, or on the peritoneum (lining of the pelvis). Other imaging techniques, such as computed tomography (CT) scanning or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), may occasionally be used.

Ruling out Conditions with Similar Symptoms

Many conditions cause pelvic pain. In many cases, the cause is unknown, and the condition often resolves on its own. However, some causes of pelvic pain can be serious and should be ruled out during a work-up for endometriosis.

Primary Dysmenorrhea. Primary dysmenorrhea is recurrent pelvic pain associated with menstruation. Dysmenorrhea is common in many women. [For more information, see In-Depth Report #100: Menstrual disorders.]

Adenomyosis. A condition called adenomyosis occurs when nodules (knots) of endometrial tissue develop within the deep muscle layers of the uterus. This disorder is often classified with endometriosis, but adenomyosis is a different disease. (Endometriosis occurs when endometrial tissue grows and functions outside the uterus.) Adenomyosis is a significant cause of severe pelvic pain and menstrual irregularities. It typically occurs in women who have uterine fibroids, women age 40 - 50, and women who have had children. Women who have had surgery for endometriosis, yet continue to suffer from menstrual and pelvic pain, may actually have adenomyosis. [For more information, see In-Depth Report #73: Uterine fibroids.]

Fibroid tumors
Fibroid tumors may not need to be removed if they are not causing pain, bleeding excessively, or growing rapidly.

Other Causes of Pelvic Pain. Many conditions cause pelvic pain that may or may not be related to menstruation. Some causes of pelvic pain can be serious and should be ruled out include:

  • Uterine fibroids
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (which is a result of infections in the pelvic area)
  • Miscarriage
  • Ectopic pregnancy
Ectopic pregnancy

Click the icon to see an image of an ectopic pregnancy.
  • Pelvic cancer (rare)
  • Uterine polyps
  • The use of an intrauterine device (IUD) for contraception

Conditions that may mimic symptoms of endometriosis but which are unrelated to problems in the reproductive organs include:

  • Severe kidney or urinary tract infections
  • Celiac disease
  • Appendicitis
  • Interstitial cystitis
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Diverticulitis
  • Irritable bowel syndrome

Treatment

There is no perfect way of managing endometriosis. The three basic treatment approaches are:

  • Watchful waiting (to relieve symptoms)
  • Hormonal therapy (to reduce the size of endometrial implants)
  • Surgery (to reduce endometrial implants, restore fertility, or possibly cure the condition)

The choice depends on a number of factors, including the woman's symptoms, her age, whether fertility is a factor, and the severity of the disease.

Watchful Waiting

Delaying treatment may be most appropriate for women with mild endometriosis or those who are approaching the age of menopause.

Women may also use lifestyle modifications, such as exercise and relaxation, to cope with their pain. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve), or acetaminophen (Tylenol), can help provide some pain relief.

Hormonal Therapy

Hormonal therapies are used to mimic states in which ovulation does not occur (such as pregnancy or menopause) or to directly block ovulation. Hormonal drugs include oral contraceptives, progestins, GnRH agonists, and danazol. They can be very effective in relieving endometriosis symptoms. Some of these drugs may also be used after surgery to help prevent recurrence of endometriosis. Downsides of these drugs include:

  • None of these drugs can cure the problem. Symptoms recur in about half of patients within 5 years of treatment.
  • They do not improve fertility rates and may delay conception.
  • Side effects of these drugs can be distressing. There is a high dropout rate with the use of nearly all of these hormonal treatments.
  • Women who take GnRH agonists, danazol, or similar drugs should use non-hormonal birth control methods (such as the diaphragm, cervical cap, or condoms) because these drugs can increase the risk for birth defects.

Surgery

Surgery is an option for women who:

  • Have severe pain that does not respond to watchful waiting and medical treatment.
  • Want to become pregnant and endometriosis is most likely the major contributor to infertility.

There are two basic surgical approaches for endometriosis:

  • Conservative Surgery (Laparoscopy or Laparotomy). Conservative surgery uses minimally invasive laparoscopy, or sometimes laparotomy (conventional open surgery through normal incision), to remove the endometriosis implants without removing any normal tissue or reproductive organs. It is a good option for women who wish to become pregnant or who cannot tolerate hormone therapy. Endometriosis often recurs after conservative surgery, however. The risk for recurrence or residual pain after any procedure increases with the severity of the condition, particularly if endometriosis has affected areas outside the uterus.
  • Radical Surgery (Hysterectomy). Hysterectomy offers the best option for either a cure or more significant control of the problem. Younger patients can often have only a hysterectomy while leaving one or both of their ovaries intact. However, if endometriosis has developed outside the uterus then even this procedure is not curative. Removing only the uterus with hysterectomy has the same risk for recurrence as conservative surgery. Removing both ovaries (bilateral oophorectomy) along with the uterus is the only potential cure for endometriosis.
Hysterectomy - series

Click the icon to see an illustrated series detailing hysterectomy.

In choosing between hysterectomy (with or without removal of the ovaries) and conservative surgeries, age and the desire for children are important factors.

Treating Infertility in Patients with Endometriosis

For women with severe endometriosis who want to become pregnant, conservative surgery (typically laparoscopy) is the appropriate approach for restoring fertility. Hormonal therapies that treat endometriosis itself, such as GnRH agonist or progestins, generally do not help fertility. If surgery fails, fertility drugs and artificial reproductive technologies, such as in vitro fertilization, are options. Women with endometriosis who are trying to conceive should discuss all treatment options with a fertility specialist. [For more information, see In-Depth Report #22: Infertility in women.]

Medications

The basic approach in hormonal treatments for endometriosis is to block production of female hormones (estrogen and progesterone) or to prevent ovulation. Hormonal drugs are used for pain relief only. They do not improve fertility rates and in some cases may delay conception. Specific hormonal drugs may have different effects for women with endometriosis.

  • Inducing Pseudopregnancy. Oral contraceptives that contain estrogen and progestins mimic a pregnant state and block ovulation. (Progestins are natural or synthetic forms of progesterone). Progestins may also be used alone, since they have specific effects that can cause the endometrial tissue to atrophy.
  • Inducing Pseudomenopause. Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists reduce estrogen and progesterone to their lowest levels.
  • Inducing On-going Blockage of Ovulation. Danazol, a derivative of male hormones, is a powerful ovulation blocker but has very unpleasant side effects.

Most women achieve pain relief after taking these drugs. To date, comparison studies have found few differences in effectiveness among the major hormonal treatments. Differences occur mostly in their side effects. Women should discuss the effects of particular medications with their doctors to determine the best choice.

Oral Contraceptives

Oral contraceptives (OCs), commonly called "the Pill," contain combinations of an estrogen and a progestin (either a natural progesterone or the synthetic form called progestin). For some patients, OCs may provide better endometriosis pain relief than gonadotropin releasing hormone agonist drugs.

Birth control pill - series

Click the icon to see an illustrated series detailing the birth control pill.

When used throughout a menstrual cycle, OCs suppress the actions of other reproductive hormones (luteinizing hormone, or LH, and follicle stimulating hormone, or FSH) and prevent ovulation. There are many brands available. The estrogen compound used in most oral contraceptives is estradiol. Many different progestins are used, and there are many brands. None to date have proven to be superior over others. Women should discuss the best options for their individual situations with their doctor.

Standard OCs come in a 28-pill pack that contains 21 active pills and 7 inactive pills. Newer continuous-dosing (also called continuous-use) oral contraceptives aim to reduce -- or even eliminate -- monthly periods and thereby prevent the pain and discomfort that often accompanies menstruation. These OCs contain a combination of estradiol and the progesterone levonorgestrel but use extending dosing of active pills.

OCs with continuous dosing include:

  • Seasonale, contains 81 days of active pills followed by 7 days of inactive pills. Women have on average a period every 3 months.
  • Seasonique produces about 4 periods a year. A woman takes 84 days of levonorgestrol-estradiol pills followed by 7 days of pills that contain only low-dose estradiol.
  • Lybrel, supplies a daily low dose of levonorgestrel and estradiol with no inactive pills. Because it contains only active pills, which are taken 365 days a year, it completely eliminates monthly menstrual periods. Over 50% of women in clinical trials completely stopped menstrual periods by the end of the first year. Some women, however, had occasional unscheduled bleeding or spotting during the first 3 - 6 months.

Estrogen and progestin each cause different side effects. The most serious side effects are due to the estrogen in the combined pill. Uncommon but more dangerous complications of OCs include high blood pressure and deep-vein blood clots (thrombosis), which may contribute to heart attack or stroke.

[For more information, see In-Depth Report #91: Birth control options for women.]

Progestins

Progestins alone may be helpful and are the oldest drugs used for endometriosis. Progestins can prevent ovulation and reduce the risk for endometriosis in the following ways:

  • They block luteinizing hormone (LH), one of the reproductive hormones important in ovulation.
  • They change the lining of the uterus and eventually cause it to atrophy.
  • They may provide pain relief equivalent to the more powerful hormone drugs. Some doctors recommend them as the first choice for women with endometriosis who do not want to become pregnant.

Specific Progestins. Progestins are available in various forms. They include:

  • Intrauterine Device. The levonorgestrel-releasing intrauterine system, or LNG-IUS (Mirena) has proved effective for treating heavy menstrual bleeding (menorrhagia), and studies indicate that it helps control the symptoms of minimal-to-moderate endometriosis. Progestin released by the IUD mainly affects the uterus and cervix and causes fewer widespread side effects than other forms of progestins. Studies indicate that the LNG-IUS works as well as gonadotropin releasing hormone agonists in managing endometriosis pain, and causes less loss of estrogen.
  • Injection. Medroxyprogesterone (Depo-Provera) is administered by injection every 3 months. A low-dose formulation is called Depo-subQ Provera 104. Depo-Provera can cause loss of bone mineral density, a condition associated with osteoporosis, but GnRH agonists may cause even more bone thinning. Depo-Provera can cause persistent infertility for up to 22 months after the last injection.
  • Pill. Oral progestins include norethindrone (Micronor, Aygestin, Norlutate). Norethindrone is also known as norethisterone.
Intrauterine device

Click the icon to see an image of an IUD.

Side Effects of Progestins. Side effects of progestin occur in both the combination oral contraceptives and any contraceptive that uses only progestin, although they may be less or more severe depending on the form and dosage of the contraceptive. The most common side effects include:

  • Changes in uterine bleeding, such as higher amounts during periods, spotting and bleeding between periods (called break-through bleeding), or absence of periods
  • Weight gain
  • Water retention and swelling in the face, ankles, or feet
  • Breast tenderness
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Mood changes

[For more information, see In-Depth Report #91: Birth control options for women.]

GnRH Agonists

Gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists are effective hormone treatments for endometriosis. They block the release of the reproductive hormones LH (luteinizing hormone) and FSH (follicular-stimulating hormone). As a result, the ovaries stop ovulating and no longer produce estrogen. Ovulation and menstruation resume around 4 - 10 weeks after stopping the drug. The specific length of time depends on the type of GnRH agonist used.

Specific GnRH Agonists. GnRH agonists include goserelin (Zoladex), buserelin, a monthly injection of leuprolide (depot Lupron), and a nasal spray, nafarelin (Synarel).

Side Effects and Complications. Commonly reported side effects (which can be severe in some women) include menopause-like symptoms, including hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, weight change, and depression. The side effects vary in intensity depending on the GnRH agonist. They may be more intense with leuprolide and persist after the drug has been stopped.

The most important concern is possible osteoporosis from estrogen loss. [For more information, see In-Depth Report #18: Osteoporosis.] In general, doctors recommend that women not take GnRH agonists for more than 6 months.

GnRH treatments can increase the risk for birth defects. Women who are taking GnRH agonists should use non-hormonal birth control methods, such as the diaphragm, cervical cap, or condoms while on the treatments.

Danazol

Danazol (Danocrine) is a synthetic drug that resembles a male hormone (androgen). It suppresses the pathway leading to ovulation. Many women stop taking this drug because of its adverse side effects, which include bloating, acne, irregular vaginal bleeding, and muscle cramps. Danazol can also cause male characteristics, such as growth of facial hair, reduced breasts, and deepening of the voice. Side effects virtually always disappear after stopping the medication. It may increase the risk for unhealthy cholesterol levels. Because GnRh agonists cause far fewer side effects, danazol is rarely used these days for endometriosis treatment.

Conservative Surgery

The goal of conservative surgery is to aggressively remove as many endometrial implants and cysts as possible without causing surgical scarring and subsequent adhesions that could cause fertility problems. Surgery has been shown to improve infertility rates in women with severe endometriosis. Whether it offers any advantage in pregnancy rates in women with mild-to-moderate endometriosis is unclear. Conservative surgery can also help relieve pain caused by implants. It may, however, miss microscopic implants that could continue to cause pain and other symptoms after the procedure.

The two conservative surgical procedures are

  • Laparascopy is currently the gold standard and most commonly performed surgical treatment for endometriosis. It involves several small abdominal incisions through which a thin telescopic tube (laparoscope) is inserted. The doctor removes implants and scar tissue and destroys them with heat. Laparoscopy requires general anesthesia, but it is an outpatient procedure and the patient can go home the same day. Recovery usually takes a few weeks.
  • Laparotomy uses a wide abdominal incision and conventional surgical instruments. It is much more invasive and requires a longer recovery time (typically several months). Laparotomy is rarely performed except in cases of severe endometriosis.

Laparoscopy Procedure

A laparoscopy is performed as follows:

  • Carbon dioxide gas is injected into the abdomen, distending it and pushing the bowel away so that the doctor has a wider view.
  • The procedure requires making small incisions at the navel and above the pubic bone.
  • The laparoscope (a narrow tube equipped with camera lenses and a fiber optic light source) is inserted through the incision at the navel (the umbilical incision).
  • A probe is then inserted through the second incision, allowing the doctor to directly view the outside surface of the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries.
  • One or two additional small incisions can be made on either side of the lower abdomen through these incisions. Surgical instruments or other devices are passed through these accessory incisions to destroy or remove abnormal tissue. Implants can be removed by excision (surgical removal) using a laser or scissors or by destroying the area with lasers or with electricity (or electrocautery).

Complications. Patients may experience temporary but severe discomfort in the shoulders after laparoscopy due to residual carbon dioxide gas that puts pressure on the diaphragm. The incisions, even with laparoscopy, may cause pain afterward, which can usually be treated effectively with mild pain relievers. There are small risks for bleeding, infection, and reaction to anesthesia.

Recurrence. Even with very successful surgery, endometriosis may recur within several months to several years.

Hysterectomy

Hysterectomy, the surgical removal of the uterus, is the second most frequently performed surgery in premenopausal women (Cesarean sections are first). Endometriosis accounts for a significant percentage of these procedures. Hysterectomy, however, does not necessarily cure endometriosis.

A woman cannot become pregnant after having a hysterectomy. Women should realize that hysterectomy causes immediate menopause if the ovaries are removed.

[For more information, see In-Depth Report #73: Uterine fibroids and hysterectomy.]

Types of Hysterectomies

Once a decision for a hysterectomy has been made, the patient should discuss with her doctor what will be removed. The common choices are:

  • Total Hysterectomy (Removal of uterus and cervix). Removing only the uterus with hysterectomy has the same risk for recurrence as conservative surgery. Subtotal hysterectomy involves removing the uterus but keeping the cervix intact.
  • Bilateral Oophorectomy (Removal of both ovaries) or Bilateral Salpingo-Oophorectomy (Removal of the fallopian tubes and ovaries). For endometriosis treatment, removal of the ovaries is often performed in combination with hysterectomy. This is the only potential cure for endometriosis. If endometriosis has developed outside the uterus then even ovary removal procedures are not curative.
Hysterectomy
Hysterectomy is surgical removal of the uterus, resulting in inability to become pregnant. This surgery may be done for a variety of reasons including, but not restricted to, chronic pelvic inflammatory disease, uterine fibroids and cancer. A hysterectomy may be done through an abdominal or a vaginal incision.

Removal of the ovaries (oophorectomy) along with hysterectomy significantly reduces the likelihood that endometriosis will recur. However, there is still a small chance that recurrence can happen.

Types of Hysterectomy Procedures

Hysterectomies may be performed abdominally (through an incision in the abdomen) or vaginally (through a vaginal incision). A variation of the vaginal approach is called laparoscopic-assisted vaginal hysterectomy (LAVH). There are other laparoscopic approaches as well.

Recovery times for vaginal hysterectomy and LAVH are shorter than those for abdominal hysterectomy. However, hospital stays may be longer with LAVH than standard vaginal hysterectomy. It is not clear whether LAVH adds any significant benefits compared to the standard vaginal procedure. Abdominal hysterectomy is still the most commonly performed procedure.

After Hysterectomy

After hysterectomy, women may have hot flashes, a symptom of menopause, even if they retain their ovaries. However, women who have a hysterectomy are less likely to have hot flashes than women who have a natural menopause.

If both ovaries have been removed in premenopausal women, the procedure causes premature menopause. Other menopausal symptoms include vaginal dryness and irritation, insomnia, and weight gain.

If hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is recommended after hysterectomy and ovary removal, it is given as estrogen-only replacement therapy (ERT). (Women without ovaries do not need to take combination estrogen-progesterone HRT.) Estrogen-replacement therapy carries certain risks, including stroke and possible increased risk of breast cancer. [For more information, see In-Depth Report #40: Menopause.]

After a total hysterectomy, in which the cervix has been removed, a woman does not need annual Pap smears of the cervix. However, she still should get regular pelvic and breast exams.

Resources

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Jacoby VL, Grady D, Sawaya GF. Oophorectomy as a risk factor for coronary heart disease. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2009 Feb;200(2):140.e1-9. Epub 2008 Nov 18.

Johnson, N. and C. Farquhar. Endometriosis. Clin Evid. 2006;(15): 2449-64.

Lobo RA. Endometriosis. Etiology, pathology, diagnosis, management. Katz VL, Lobo RA, Lentz G, Gershenson D, eds. Comprehensive Gynecology. 5th ed. St. Louis, MO: Mosby; 2007: chap 19.

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Parker WH, Broder MS, Chang E, Feskanich D, Farquhar C, Liu Z, et al. Ovarian conservation at the time of hysterectomy and long-term health outcomes in the nurses' health study. Obstet Gynecol. 2009 May;113(5):1027-37.

Rodgers AK, Falcone T. Treatment strategies for endometriosis. Expert Opin Pharmacother. 2008 Feb;9(2):243-55.

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Review Date: 8/5/2009
Reviewed By: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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