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Incontinence & Overactive Bladder Health Center

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The Scariest Article You'll Ever Read About Your Ladyparts

"Why is my period so heavy?"

Do you go through super-absorbency pads or tampons like there's no tomorrow? Does "Aunt Flo" hang around for more than seven days? If so, you probably have menorraghia, a term that means excessive or prolonged menstrual bleeding. Up to 20 percent of women have the condition, Banks says. "It affected every aspect of my life, and contributed to the derailment of my career," says Margaret Harding, a 50-year-old energy consultant in Wilmington, NC. "I was unable to work for periods of time, and I missed crucial meetings. My male colleagues didn't understand what the problem was and why I couldn't just 'handle it' and keep going. I felt frustrated and embarrassed." At her heaviest moments, Margaret passed blood clots the size of nickels and bled through pads in less than a half hour. In roughly 10 percent of women with menorraghia, blood loss is so great that signs of anemia — shortness of breath, dizziness, and fatigue — occur, Banks notes.

Blame it on: Usually fibroids, noncancerous tumors that grow on the uterus. "Fibroids tend to run in families and are more common in African-American women," Banks says. Uterine or cervical polyps, which are benign growths as well, can also cause heavy or irregular bleeding. A much less common cause of excessive bleeding is uterine or cervical cancer. If your period becomes much heavier than is normal for you or if you bleed for more than a week or between your periods, see your doctor.

The fix: Treatment for fibroids and polyps varies depending on their location, size (some fibroids can be as big as a watermelon), and whether you want to get pregnant in the future. Hormonal contraceptives can sometimes decrease bleeding in the short term if you have relatively small growths that aren't causing any pain; symptoms recur if you stop taking them, however. If you have small growths inside the uterus, you may undergo a minimally invasive outpatient procedure called hysteroscopy, which removes the fibroids or polyps without damaging the uterus, or a laparoscopy to remove fibroids on the surface of the uterus. Neither of these treatments should prevent future fertility. Women with heavy bleeding who aren't planning to have children in the future may opt for endometrial ablation, a minor treatment in which the lining of the uterus is burned to decrease the heaviness of your menstrual flow. That's what Margaret chose. "It eliminated all bleeding and made me feel human again. My life wasn't defined by how far from a bathroom I was," she says. It also gave her the ability and confidence to leave her former career behind and start her own consulting company.

"Why can't I control my bowels?"

There's no way to explain the answer to this in less-than-icky terms, because, well, it's pretty darned icky. Fecal incontinence is a disorder in which, no matter how hard you try, you can't hold in stool or gas. Horrible, right? Seven years ago, Mary Ellen Walsh, 44, of Syosset, NY, knew something was wrong with her backside a few hours after delivering a 9-pound baby girl. "I had the urge to go and couldn't make it to the bathroom in time," she says. "The recovery-room nurse told me not to worry and that it happens all the time, but that had never happened to me before." From that point on, Mary Ellen had daily accidents — at the grocery store, the library, at parties. "I felt ashamed, like my body had turned against me," she says. This nightmarish condition affects 7.5 percent of women — but because it's so humiliating, 80 percent of sufferers never talk to a doctor about it, Rosenblatt says.

Blame it on: Severe injury from birthing a large baby vaginally, pushing for a long time during labor, or the use of forceps or vacuum during delivery. As a baby travels through the pelvis, its head can stretch and damage the pudendal nerve, a major nerve that controls the anal sphincter muscle and triggers the feeling that you have to poop. Vaginal tears that extend through the perineum (the area between the vagina and anus) into the anal sphincter muscle or the rectum increase your risk too. Many doctors feel that the angle between the rectum and the anus is also an important factor — a smaller angle means there's less space to hold your stool, so it's easier to leak out.

The fix: If the sphincter muscle is still intact, sometimes a combination of medication, biofeedback, and Kegel exercises can help. Mary Ellen's sphincter muscle was severed, so she went in for a sphincteroplasty, the most common operation for fecal incontinence, in which the ends of the torn muscle are overlapped and sewn back in place. Ten days after her surgery, she had complete control back. "Now I'm so strong back there!" she says. "My son jokes that I have a bionic butt!" Other treatments include injections of synthetic fillers that "bulk up" the anal muscle to prevent leaks or replacing the damaged muscle with an artificial sphincter. Newer treatments still under investigation include a minimally invasive synthetic mesh sling that helps support the rectum and restores the angle between the anus and rectum and a pacemaker device that stimulates the nerves in the back to improve the ability to control bowel movements. Now that Mary Ellen is fully healed, she says she can look back and laugh at her once-agonizing condition. "I survived," she says. "Women who have what I had should know that it gets better."

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