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What are uterine fibroids?
Uterine fibroids are benign growths in the wall of the uterus and most often appear during childbearing years. Fibroids are almost never associated with cancer.
Fibroids are rubbery, noncancerous nodules composed of muscle and fibrous tissue in the wall of the uterus. They affect at least 25% of all women in their 30s and 40s and half of black women in that age group. Their growth is probably stimulated by estrogen; they tend to shrink after menopause when estrogen levels drop.
Fibroids develop from cells in the muscular wall of the uterus that grow slowly into balls of smooth muscle encased in fibrous tissue. Most grow inside the wall of the uterus,
and many cause no symptoms. Women who have fibroids usually have more than one. Most fibroids are between the size of a walnut and an orange.
Those at higher risk include Black women and women who started their periods at a young age. Other risk factors are vitamin D deficiency, poor diet, obesity, drinking alcohol, and family history of fibroids.
Fibroids can cause pelvic pressure and pain, severe menstrual cramping, and heavy menstrual bleeding that leads to anemia. It can affect your quality of life because of the heavy bleeding, chronic pain, and discomfort.
Though fibroids don't always make it impossible to become pregnant, infertility and pregnancy loss may occur, and women with fibroids are at higher risk of preterm delivery.
Symptoms of uterine fibroids
The location of the fibroid in the wall of the uterus usually determines the symptoms. The most common symptom is excessive vaginal bleeding.
- Submucosal fibroids grow just beneath the endometrium (the lining of the uterus) and can stimulate excessive bleeding.
- Pedunculated fibroids dangle from a stalk and either stick out into the uterus (where they may cause cramps as the uterus contracts trying to get rid of the fibroid) or sit outside the uterine wall.
- Subserous fibroids grow against the outer wall of the uterus, where they cause pressure.
- A fibroid pressing on a pelvic nerve can cause chronic hip and back pain.
- Large fibroids can press on the bladder and bowel, increasing frequency of urination and causing constipation.
- If a fibroid blocks a fallopian tube, it can cause infertility.
- If it presses on the cervix, it can cause miscarriage or premature labor.
You should consult with a gynecologist to try to get relief from your symptoms. Fibroids can be diagnosed through a routine pelvic exam or ultrasound in a doctor's office. Your doctor can prescribe various medications to ease the symptoms and regulate the menstrual cycle.
There are also a number of surgical techniques, some minimally invasive, to shrink or remove the fibroids while leaving the uterus in place. Hysterectomy, or removal of the uterus, is an option in some cases.