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Endometriosis is a condition in which patches of the endometrium (the lining of the uterus or womb) start growing in other places in the body, outside of the womb.
Wherever it grows, the endometrium reacts to the monthly cycle of hormones as it normally would. It builds up with blood, becoming thicker and thicker and eventually breaks down.
However as it is growing in a place where it shouldn't be, there is nowhere for the blood and tissue to go when it does break down. This results in the blood and tissue building up, which can cause intense pain.
As well as this, the body's immune system can attack the endometrial tissue believing it to be 'foreign tissue'. This can result in scarring and adhesions.
Endometriosis can occur in:
While many woman may have endometriosis and not experience any symptoms, for others it can cause intense pain and lead to infertility.
A woman may experience one or more of the following:
If you have any of these symptoms, visit your doctor immediately. While endometriosis cannot always be cured, the symptoms usually can be treated.
Researchers are not certain what causes endometriosis. The main theory is that during your period, some of the menstrual tissue flows backwards into the abdomen via the fallopian tubes in a process called ‘retrograde menstruation’. Here the tissue takes root and begins to grow.
However, it is not known why only some women develop endometriosis, when this retrograde menstruation can occur in many other women without having any effect. It may be that genetic factors make certain women more susceptible.
Endometriosis is most commonly diagnosed in women in their mid-20s to 40s.
Most women who develop this condition only have a mild form and fertility is not affected. However, severe endometriosis can lead to blockage of the fallopian tubes or the development of ovarian cysts, which can cause infertility.
No. Once you become pregnant, endometriosis will not damage your pregnancy. In fact your endometriosis will probably improve because of the constant high levels of female hormones that are produced during pregnancy.
If you think you may have endometriosis, you should consult your doctor, who may refer you to a gynaecologist for further investigation. The only reliable way to make a formal diagnosis is by conducting a type of examination called a laparoscopy. This procedure involves inserting a small tube into your body through a small incision in your abdomen, in order to view the endometrial tissue and take a sample for testing. Endometriosis may be graded as minimal, mild, moderate or severe.
There is no cure as such for endometriosis; however, treatments are available that can ease the symptoms associated with the condition. A third of all cases also resolve without any treatment.
Painkillers, especially non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are often used to relieve symptoms. Hormone treatments, which act to stop ovulation and suppress hormonal stimulation, can also be extremely effective in reducing symptoms.
Surgery may be carried out in some cases in order to remove the endometrial tissue and can improve the chances of getting pregnant. Women with severe symptoms who have completed their family or who do not wish to conceive, may opt for a hysterectomy (removal of the womb).
The Endometriosis Association of Ireland is a self-help group in Ireland, aiming to give women an opportunity to share information and give support. Contact the Endometriosis Association at Tel: (01) 873 5702, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Web: www.endo.ie.
Reviewed: November 30, 2006
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Last Reviewed: 30th November 2006