Uterine fibroids are the most common tumor of the reproductive tract, affecting up to 80% of women by age 50. Fibroids most often occur in women during their childbearing years.
While some women have fibroids without symptoms, others experience symptoms so painful and severe that the condition can affect their quality of life. Fibroids can cause heavy bleeding, debilitating abdominal pain, and pelvic pressure.
While the complications they cause typically aren’t life-threatening, fibroids can change the structure of your uterus and affect fertility.
Only a medical professional can determine whether your fibroids are a cause for concern. Our OB/GYNs at The Association for Women’s Health Care are experts in the diagnosis and treatment of fibroids.
We use the latest diagnostic tools to assess the location and severity of your fibroids so we can determine the best way to relieve your symptoms and improve the health of your uterus.
How fibroids develop
Fibroids are muscular tumors that develop inside the uterus, on the uterine wall, or on its exterior surface. Some fibroids can grow a stem-like structure to attach to the uterus. The condition becomes more common with age, occurring most often from age 30 up to menopause.
Fibroids can appear as small as a grain of rice or as large as a melon, though they can change size. Fibroids are typically benign, or noncancerous. Though rare, some fibroids develop as cancerous tumors, but benign fibroids don’t become cancerous.
While scientists don’t know the exact cause of fibroids, their occurrence may be associated with estrogen levels. Fibroids tend to swell when estrogen levels are high, especially during pregnancy, and shrink during times of low estrogen levels, such as menopause.
Having a family history of fibroids increases your risk of developing the condition. You have a higher risk of developing fibroids if you are African-American or obese.
Symptoms of fibroids
You may have fibroids without knowing you have the condition because your fibroids might not produce symptoms. It’s common for fibroids to be diagnosed during a pelvic exam when a physician finds a lump or bump and brings it to your attention.
Some women don’t have to wait for a pelvic exam to know that something is unusual. Common fibroid symptoms include:
- Prolonged or heavy periods
- Bleeding between periods
- Abdominal discomfort and/or fullness
- Pelvic pain
- Lower back pain
- Painful sex
- Frequent urination
- Difficulty voiding
- Distortion of the uterus or abdomen
When we suspect fibroids, we typically use an imaging test such as an MRI, abdominal ultrasound, or transvaginal ultrasound to confirm the diagnosis.
Since fibroids can distort the uterine cavity, they can contribute to fertility issues. Fibroids are present in 5-10% of infertile women.
Fibroids that develop on the inside of the uterus can change the uterine lining and interfere with embryo implantation or development, and potentially increase your risk of miscarriage.
During pregnancy, fibroids are also associated with preterm labor, placental abruption, and babies who develop at a rate that’s smaller than their gestational age.
When the uterine cavity is distorted by large fibroids, it may also increase your risk for breech birth, cesarean delivery, or abnormal labor.
Other potential problems
While fibroids typically aren’t considered life-threatening unless they’re cancerous, they can interfere with your well-being, depending on their location and severity.
Fibroids that cause heavy bleeding can result in anemia, which is an inadequate number of red blood cells. Without treatment, anemia can lead to severe fatigue, heart failure, and poor immunity.
When fibroids become large, they can press on your bladder and ureter, the channel that transports urine from your kidneys to your bladder. The result can lead to kidney damage. Large fibroids can also cause abdominal swelling and weight gain.
Treatment for fibroids
If you have fibroids without symptoms, treatment typically isn’t necessary. When symptoms occur, the recommended treatment depends on your condition and the severity of your symptoms.
When fibroid symptoms interfere with your quality of life, you may benefit from noninvasive treatments. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or acetaminophen can relieve minor discomfort.
Birth control pills or a progestin-releasing IUD can regulate painful periods and heavy bleeding. Medications that contain gonadotropin-releasing hormone agonists can stop your menstrual cycle and shrink fibroids.
If your fibroids require more aggressive treatment, we may recommend a myomectomy, a procedure that removes fibroids without damaging your uterus or reproductive function.
A hysterectomy may be an appropriate treatment for fibroids if you are near or past menopause or don’t plan to get pregnant. Fibroids are the most common reason for hysterectomies.
Learn more about fibroids and when they may require treatment. Contact our Chicago or Northbrook, Illinois, office today to schedule an appointment.