Fibroids, or leiomyomata (myomas), are common noncancerous growths that usually occur in or on the muscle walls of the uterus. One cell divides repeatedly and grows into a firm, rubbery mass separate from the rest of the uterine wall. Almost half of women older than 50 have these growths. They’re more common in African American women than in Caucasian women. They can grow as a single mass or more often as a number of masses of different sizes.
The cause isn’t clear. Several factors probably work together to produce fibroids. These factors may be hormones such as estrogen, genetics (runs in families), and environmental. Being overweight, never having had a child, and getting periods before age 10 also may have an effect. The fibroids usually, but not always, shrink after menopause (change of life).
Most fibroids (30% to 50%) cause no symptoms. Problems, when they occur, are related to the size and location of the fibroids. Fibroids may grow to be quite large so that a woman may look pregnant and have symptoms of pregnancy: pressure in the pelvic area (lower belly), heaviness, and need to go to the bathroom often to urinate. Fibroids in the uterine wall or in the cavity of the uterus may cause bleeding between periods or heavier and more painful periods. Constipation, backache, pain during sex, and lower belly pains may occur. Rarely, fibroids cause sudden pain or bleeding.
The health care provider will do an examination of the pelvic area. Ultrasound or x-rays may be used but aren’t always needed for diagnosis. The doctor may do a special procedure (hysteroscopy) for women with bleeding symptoms. This simple procedure lets the doctor look into the uterus to find the cause of the bleeding or to plan or carry out therapy.
Most fibroids need no treatment and only regular checks to be sure that they’re not growing too large or causing problems. Medicines including hormones and drugs that act against hormones can be tried. If fibroids continue to be a problem, hysterectomy (surgery to remove the uterus) is an option. Sometimes, fibroids alone may be surgically removed (myomectomy), which saves the uterus if children are wanted. Another newer method is uterine artery embolization. In this method, arteries to the uterus are blocked so they don’t feed the fibroids. Myolysis (electric current destroys fibroids and shrinks blood vessels feeding them) and cryomyolysis (liquid nitrogen is used instead of electric current) are other methods. However, fibroids can return and mean more surgery later. Newer medicines may shrink fibroids, but this change is only temporary.
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