Endometriosis: what it is, how it develops, and how it affects the body
The name endometriosis suggests it is a disease that affects the endometrium, but it is not exactly that. In fact, it affects the whole body. Why? How? Before jumping to endometriosis, allow us to make a small introduction to the endometrium.
What is the endometrium?
The endometrium is the interior lining of the uterus. It is the endometrium that becomes thicker with blood just before your period, and it is this thickened lining of the uterus that is shed during your period. During pregnancy, the fertilised egg will implant in the endometrium, and the placenta slowly forms from it.
What is endometriosis?
Endometriosis is a condition that develops when cells very similar to those of the endometrium grow outside of the uterus. These cells were usually grown on the ovaries and surrounding tissues, fallopian tubes, or on tissues around the uterus. Other, less common, sites where these cells may grow are the vagina, the cervix, the vulva, the bladder, the bowel, and the rectum. In extreme cases, endometriosis may develop in other tissues like the lungs, brain or even skin.
While there are numerous theories and attempts to explain the causes of endometriosis, unfortunately, these are still very poorly understood. In fact, it is not clear if the cells that cause this condition are actually endometrial cells that for some reason travel naturally to other organs or that were transported (for example via surgery) if these cells can be a result of a transformation suffered from some other cells, or even if the whole condition is an autoimmune disease that makes the body “think” some cells are endometrial cells.
The most common symptom is severe pelvic pain, and this is also the most important factor in diagnosing endometriosis. However, there are other possible symptoms like:
- Heavy and/or irregular periods;
- Pain during sexual intercourse, bowel movements and urination;
- Fertility issues;
- Diarrhoea or constipation;
- Nausea and vomiting;
- Chronic fatigue;
- Low-grade fevers;
Some women, however, may be nearly asymptomatic, and not experience severe pain while suffering from endometriosis. It is estimated that around 2 to 11% of all women in the world are asymptomatic.
How does endometriosis “happen”?
As we said, the causes of this condition are still very poorly understood, and its manifestation is still a bit blurry. What we do know for now is that the areas where these endometriosis cells are located are affected by hormones just as the actual cells of the endometrium. And since they are affected the same way, the areas of endometriosis “bleed” every menstrual cycle, which causes inflammation and scarring.
Moreover, endometriosis is not contagious, but genetics might have some role in it, so women with cases in the family are considered at risk for endometriosis.
Complications of endometriosis
Pain is a very big symptom of endometriosis and can be regarded as a complication in itself since many times this pain is so severe that it becomes incapacitating. However, if left untreated, it can get worse, that is, the endometriosis cells can travel further and spread to other organs.
Another complication, and most common, is infertility. A less common complication is ovarian cancer, as well as endometriosis-associated adenocarcinoma, a type of cancer that can develop in women who have had this condition.
Is there a cure for endometriosis?
Sadly, there is not a cure, in the strict sense of the word, for endometriosis. But there are several treatments. These treatments usually involve medication or surgery.
The most common initial approach for the treatment of this condition is pain medication. This treatment can ease the pain associated with endometriosis. Another common treatment is hormone therapy. Hormonal contraceptives, hormone-inducing and hormone-inhibiting drugs can also not only ease the pain but also reduce many of the other symptoms. Finally, surgery is also an option.
The most common way of treating consists of removing some parts of tissues that have developed endometriosis (conservative surgery). However, this is not always possible. In that case, a total hysterectomy and removal of the ovaries is a possibility.
I suspect I might have endometriosis. What now?
First of all, stay calm. A diagnosis must be carried by a medical professional only, and it includes several tests like a pelvic exam, MRI, ultrasound, or laparoscopy, alongside a very thorough description of the symptoms. If you’re suspecting you might have endometriosis, you need to document your symptoms in detail, to help your doctor make an accurate diagnosis.
Second, if you do have endometriosis, speak to your doctor about all the possible treatments, and be sure to be well informed about all the possible side effects. If needed, take someone with you to your appointment – a family member or trusted friend who can support you or help you take notes and ask all the questions.
Finally, given the nature of this condition, it might be beneficial to join a support group. Sometimes, talking to other women who might be going through the same as you, expressing your feelings, exchanging experiences, or just taking a lot of sadness and anger out of your chest can help you cope better with the emotional burden of endometriosis. Don’t give up!
Take care, Of yourself. Of your planet. Of your body.