Researchers estimate that 11% of women have endometriosis. Endometriosis is a disorder where tissue that lines the uterus grows into other parts of the body. It’s the leading cause of pelvic pain and sexual discomfort in women — yet women receive very little education about this disorder.
As a part of women's intimate health, it’s essential to know how to identify endometriosis, what to expect, and what your treatment options are so you can manage your symptoms.
What is endometriosis?
Endometrial tissue is the tissue that lines your uterus. This tissue builds up inside the uterus to support embryo implantation as you go through each menstrual cycle. When a pregnancy doesn’t occur, this tissue sheds during your period.
Endometriosis happens when endometrial tissue grows outside the uterus — usually on other pelvic organs and inside the abdominal cavity. This tissue grows, thickens, and tries to shed with every menstrual cycle. Normal uterine tissue shedding leaves the body through the vaginal opening. However, because this tissue is growing on other organs, it cannot exit, leading to adhesions, nodules, and lesions that trigger an inflammatory response. Women who have endometriosis report debilitating pain, and without treatment, they often experience infertility.
Many women do not experience symptoms early on, so early detection is often difficult. The only way to confirm a diagnosis is through a surgical procedure, so women may have tissue buildup for years before noticing the first signs. Other women report problems to their healthcare provider for several years before figuring out what’s going on.
What causes endometriosis?
The causes of endometriosis are unknown. Some research suggests endometriosis could develop from endometrial cells traveling through blood vessels or the lymphatic system. Another study shows that cells outside the uterus might develop into endometrial cells.
There is evidence that endometriosis is hereditary. Women who have children when they’re older or not at all may be at risk. Also, women who started menstruation early or have short periods may be more prone to developing endometriosis.
What are the symptoms of endometriosis?
Some women may begin having symptoms around their first period, while others begin later in life. Symptoms can coincide with your menstrual cycle, or they may occur all the time. Endometrial tissue can grow on different organs, so your symptoms and how they impact your daily life may vary.
Common symptoms of endometriosis include:
- Excruciating premenstrual/menstrual cramps
- Pain during or after sex
- Painful bowel movements
- Urinary pain
- Abdominal, lower back, or thigh pain that lasts throughout your menstrual cycle
- Heavy periods
Infertility or difficulty becoming pregnant
When endometriosis begins around the same time as the first period, many women often associate pain and discomfort with periods. They normalize high levels of pain and do not seek medical attention.
Not assuming the source of our pain and always asking questions or sharing concerns with our healthcare provider is an important part of women’s intimate wellness. If you experience menstrual pain, talk to your healthcare provider to see if endometriosis might be a factor.
What do I do if I think I have endometriosis?
If you notice symptoms that could be related to endometriosis, it’s helpful to track what you’re experiencing. You can do this through an app, with notes on your phone, or in a notebook. These notes will give clues to your healthcare provider and may help with diagnosis and form a treatment plan.You can learn more about intimate wellness for women or other related articles featured on our website.