by Dr. Isadore Rosenfeld
More than 5.5 million American girls and women of reproductive age have endometriosis, a disorder in which tissue that normally lines the cavity of the uterus (the endometrium) appears in other locations, where it has no right to be. Some research indicates that the disorder affects more Asians than Caucasians or African Americans.
In a woman with endometriosis, endometrial tissue has most commonly migrated to the ovaries (in 75 percent of cases), or to the fallopian tubes (along which eggs travel from the ovaries to the uterus), or elsewhere in the pelvis. But it is sometimes found between the rectum and vagina or in the rectum itself, in the appendix, in the urinary bladder, and occasionally in the stomach. It has even very rarely been present in the gallbladder, spleen, liver, and lungs. Symptoms (mainly pain, bleeding, and infertility) usually become apparent soon after the onset of menstrual periods, and the disorder comes and goes until menopause.
The wandering endometrial tissue, wherever it happens to end up and by whatever route it got there, sometimes behaves as if it were still in the uterus. In other words, it can menstruate! That's why symptoms of endometriosis are usually intermittent, and their timing is often related to the normal menstrual period. No two women with endometriosis have exactly the same complaint because their symptoms depend on the location of the misplaced uterine tissue. Unlike normal menstruating tissue in the uterus, wandering endometrial tissue has no way of being shed as it is from the uterus every month. It remains in its location, where it eventually forms scar tissue and adhesions that irritate the area, causing symptoms not only during the menstrual period but all month long.
Why endometrial tissue wanders in this way is not fully understood. There may be a genetic basis to it. If your sister or mother has it, there's a greater chance that you will, too. Many gynecologists believe, however, that this disorder is mainly due to an abnormal immune system that allows these cells not only to migrate from the uterus but also to survive where they don't belong.
There is no cure for endometriosis, but there are ways to reduce the pain it causes, restore fertility, and shrink the size of the "lost" tissue. However, the best long-term treatment option is to remove the offending tissue if possible.
Managing endometriosis first and foremost involves pain relief. This is best done with aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and acetaminophen. The sooner you start taking them when you have pain, the more effective they are. If the pain is very severe, you may need a prescription-strength painkiller.
Any drug or hormone (such as progestin) that stops menstrual periods will also ease the symptoms of endometriosis. This, however, is not a satisfactory long-term solution for many women. Progestin is not as popular as it once was, because the high doses required result in bloating, weight gain, depression, and irregular vaginal bleeding. It may also sometimes cause a prolonged and negative effect on ovarian function even after it has been stopped.
Other popular treatments are the gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists that decrease the brain's production of luteinizing hormones (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormones (FSH). (LH and FSH stimulate the formation of estrogen, the hormone that promotes growth of endometrial tissue.) GnRH agonists take about a month to work and are available as a nasal spray or as a monthly injection. Pregnant women should not use them.