Many of us feel some physical discomfort each month around our periods. That said, if you have pelvic pain when you’re not on your period or your menstrual pain becomes unmanageable (i.e., it’s so intense that you’re missing school or work, it’s negatively impacting your relationships, or you feel it’s diminishing your quality of life) you might be suffering from endometriosis.
Endometriosis is a chronic condition that affects approximately 7% of women of reproductive age (generally teens through early 50s). The exact cause of endometriosis is unknown, but it’s believed to be a combination of genetic, biologic and environmental factors.
Endometriosis is when uterine lining tissue (that stuff we shed each month during our periods) starts growing somewhere it shouldn’t…basically anywhere outside the uterus. It’s most often seen in the abdomen or pelvis, but can also grow in the diaphragm, lungs, bowel and abdominal wall (like around a c-section scar). That extra tissue growth can cause symptoms like:
- Severe menstrual pain and heavy periods
- Pelvic pain not related to menstruation
- Pain during sex
- Gastrointestinal pain – bloating, abnormal or painful bowel movements
If left unaddressed, endometriosis commonly causes continued or worsening pelvic pain (71-87%) and infertility (21-47%).
The good news is there are many treatment options available to help manage and mitigate the pain of endometriosis. If you think you might have higher-than-average menstrual or pelvic discomfort, the first step is talking to your primary care physician or gynecologist.
After discussing your symptoms, your doctor can conduct a physical exam or a pelvic ultrasound, if necessary, to rule our other potential causes. Depending on the severity, your doctor might first prescribe anti-inflammatory medication and/or a hormonal treatment (like birth control) to lessen the pain of your symptoms and suppress more tissue growth. If those treatments aren’t effective or your symptoms get worse, your doctor might recommend surgery to remove the excess tissue.
Often women assume their periods are supposed to be painful so they delay seeking medical care, which is why it takes an average of eight years (!) until a surgical diagnosis confirms endometriosis. Ladies, please don’t suffer in silence! It’s especially important to see a gynecologist if you’re having difficulty getting pregnant and think you may have endometriosis. It might take some time to identify the right treatment plan for you, but the sooner you start that dialogue with your doctor, the sooner you can find relief.