Uterine Fibroids: how common, risk factors, how to treat

Uterine Fibroids can be very uncomfortable and are surprisingly common — affecting 20-80% of women, mostly in their 40s and 50s. It’s important to be familiar with the symptoms and treatment options to make wise choices about your reproductive health and improve your quality of life.

What is a Uterine Fibroid? Am I At Risk?

Uterine Fibroids, also known as leiomyomas or myomas, are tumors growing in the wall of the uterus, ranging from many small masses to singular larger masses that are typically benign (non-cancerous).  They are comprised of muscle tissue and can grow into the uterine space on the inside or outside wall of the uterus.

According to WomensHealth.gov, there are several factors that can increase your risk of developing uterine fibroids.

  • Age – Uterine Fibroids develop as a woman ages and are most common during her 30’s and 40’s through menopause. Typically, the fibroids decrease in size during and after menopause.
  • Family history – If you have a family member who has been diagnosed with fibroids you are at increased risk. If your mother experienced fibroids, you are three times more likely to develop them.
  • Ethnic origin – By menopause, 80% of African-American women have Uterine Fibroids. In fact, African-American women tend to develop fibroids at a younger age and more frequently.
  • Obesity – Carrying extra weight can put you at higher risk for Uterine Fibroids. If you are extremely overweight, the risk rises to two to three times.
  • Eating habits – A diet high in red meats and ham is linked to an increased chance of fibroids. On the flip side, a diet rich in green vegetables can be a protection against the development of Uterine Fibroids.

How Do I Know if I have Uterine Fibroids?

The range of symptoms with fibroids can vary. You might not experience any of these, or only experience them in very mild forms. You might also feel the effects quite severely and even experience such discomfort that you feel debilitated during your monthly cycles. The symptoms can include any combination of the following:

  • Menorrhagia or heavy menstrual bleeding (even heavy enough to cause anemia) and/or painful periods.
  • A sensation of bloating or fullness in your pelvic region.
  • Actual enlargement or bloating of your lower abdomen.
  • Increased frequency of urination.
  • Discomfort or pain during sexual intercourse.
  • Lower back pain.
  • Complications during pregnancy and labor, including a six-time greater risk of Cesarean section.
  • And more rarely, reproductive problems, such as infertility.

What Should I Do If I think I Have Fibroids?

It’s important, especially if you can identify any of the listed risk factors, to have yearly gynecological exams with a trusted physician. If you keep up with regular visits, updated health histories, and yearly routine pelvic exams, your doctor should be able to identify with you steps to take that can minimize your risk of fibroids. If you suspect that uterine fibroids are present, your doctor should also be able to feel if there are any masses and their size.

About one-third of women who have Uterine Fibroids request treatment for the symptoms they are experiencing. You can talk with your doctor about the options available to you. According to the Human Reproduction Update, the choices of treatment will be dictated by your age and your need or desire to preserve your future fertility. Your wish to pursue or avoid surgical options will also be a factor in treatment.

Both surgical and non-surgical treatment options will be discussed, and you’ll likely become quite familiar with some of the procedures, like myomectomy by hysteroscopy, myomectomy by laparotomy or laparoscopy, or uterine artery embolization. Other interventions, such as thermal ablation, are becoming more common.

If you think you have Uterine Fibroids, schedule an appointment with your gynecologist to discuss your treatment options.

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Image credit: Kathy Sunderman