Endometriosis occurs when tissue like that which lines the inside of uterus grows outside the uterus, usually on the surfaces of organs in the pelvic and abdominal areas, in places that it is not supposed to grow. The word endometriosis comes from the word "endometrium"-endo means "inside" and metrium (pronounced mee-tree-um) means "mother." Health care providers call the tissue that lines the inside of the uterus (where a mother carries her baby) the endometrium.
Most endometriosis is found in the pelvic cavity:
One of the most common symptoms of endometriosis is pain, mostly in the abdomen, lower back, and pelvic areas. The amount of pain a woman feels is not linked to how much endometriosis she has. Some women have no pain even though their endometriosis is extensive, meaning that the affected areas are large, or that there is scarring. Some women, on the other hand, have severe pain even though they have only a few small areas of endometriosis.
Endometriosis can affect any menstruating woman, from the time of her first period to menopause, regardless of whether or not she has children, her race or ethnicity, or her socio-economic status. Endometriosis can sometimes persist after menopause; or hormones taken for menopausal symptoms may cause the symptoms of endometriosis to continue.
About 30 percent to 40 percent of women with endometriosis are infertile, making it one of the top three causes of female infertility. Some women don't find out that they have endometriosis until they have trouble getting pregnant.
If you have endometriosis and want to get pregnant, your health care provider may suggest that you have unprotected sex for six months to a year before you have any treatment for the endometriosis.
Endometriosis may result from something called "retrograde menstrual flow," in which some of the tissue that a woman sheds during her period flows into her pelvis. While most women who get their periods have some retrograde menstrual flow, not all of these women have endometriosis.Another theory about the cause of endometriosis involves genes.
The two most common imaging tests are ultrasound, a machine that uses sound waves to make the picture, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to make the picture.The only way to know for sure that you have the condition is by having surgery. The most common type of surgery is called laparoscopy. In this procedure, the surgeon inflates the abdomen slightly with a harmless gas. After making a small cut in the abdomen, the surgeon uses a small viewing instrument with a light, called a laparoscope, to look at the reproductive organs, intestines, and other surfaces to see if there is any endometriosis. He or she can make a diagnosis based on the characteristic appearance of endometriosis. This diagnosis can then be confirmed by doing a biopsy, which involves taking a small tissue sample and studying it under a microscope.
How endometriosis causes pain is the topic of much research. Because many women with endometriosis feel pain during or related to their periods, some researchers are focusing on the menstrual cycle in their search for answers about pain.
Normally, if a woman is not pregnant, her endometrial tissue builds up inside her uterus, breaks down into blood and tissue, and is shed as her menstrual flow or period. This cycle of growth and shedding happens every month or so.
The endometriosis areas growing outside the uterus also go through a similar cycle; they grow, break down into blood and tissue, and are shed once a month. But, because this tissue isn't where it's supposed to be, it can't leave the body the way a woman's period normally does. As part of this process, endometriosis areas make chemicals that may irritate the nearby tissue, as well as some other chemicals that are known to cause pain.
Over time, in the process of going through this monthly cycle, endometriosis areas can grow and become nodules or bumps on the surface of pelvic organs, or become cysts (fluid-filled sacs) in the ovaries. Sometimes the chemicals produced by the endometriosis can cause the organs in the pelvic area to scar, and even to scar together, so they appear as one large organ.
Currently, we have no cure for endometriosis. Even having a hysterectomy or removing the ovaries does not guarantee that the endometriosis areas and/or the symptoms of endometriosis will not come back.
Endometriosis is not the same as endometrial cancer. Remember that the word endometrium describes the tissue that lines the inside of the uterus. Endometrial cancer is a type of cancer that affects the lining of the inside of the uterus. Endometriosis itself is not a form of cancer.
Current research does not prove an association between endometriosis and endometrial, cervical, uterine, or ovarian cancers. In very rare cases (less than 1 percent) endometriosis is seen with a certain type of cancer, called endometrioid cancer; but, endometriosis is not known to cause this cancer.
But, scientists still don't know what causes endometriosis or what its mechanisms are in the body. In addition, many women are never diagnosed as having endometriosis, which makes linking the condition to other diseases more difficult. For this reason, women who are diagnosed with endometriosis need to be especially watchful of changes to or in their bodies; they need to communicate these changes to their health care providers.
In most cases, the symptoms of endometriosis lessen after menopause because the growths gradually get smaller. For some women, however, this is not the case.