What Are Uterine Fibroids?
Uterine fibroids, which your doctor may call leiomyomas or myomas, are muscular tumors that can grow on your uterus. They rarely turn into cancer, and if you get them it doesn’t mean you’re more likely to get uterine cancer.
Fibroids can vary a lot in size, shape, and location. They can show up in your uterus, uterine wall, or on its surface. They can also attach to your uterus by a stalk- or stem-like structure.
Some are so small that your doctor can’t even see them with the naked eye. Others grow in big masses that can affect the size and shape of your uterus.
Uterine fibroids usually appear in women of childbearing age -- generally between 30-40 years old, but they can show up at any age. They’re more common in African-American women than in white women, and they also tend to show up earlier and grow quicker in African-American women. Doctors don’t know why that is.
Symptoms of Uterine Fibroids
Fibroids may cause very mild symptoms, no symptoms at all, or symptoms that are severe. The most common symptoms of uterine fibroids include:
- Heavy, prolonged, or painful periods
- Pain in the lower abdomen or back
- Painful sex
- Frequent urination
- Discomfort in the rectum
Causes of Uterine Fibroids
Experts don’t know exactly why you get fibroids. Hormones and genetics might make you more likely to get them.
Hormones. Estrogen and progesterone are the hormones that make the lining of your uterus thicken every month during your period. They also seem to affect fibroid growth. When hormone production slows down during menopause, fibroids usually shrink.
Genetics. Researchers have found genetic differences between fibroids and normal cells in the uterus.
Other growth factors. Substances in your body that help with tissue upkeep, such as insulin-like growth factor, may play a part in fibroid growth.
Extracellular matrix (ECM). ECM makes your cells stick together. Fibroids have more ECM than normal cells, which makes them fibrous. ECM also keeps growth factors in it and causes cells to change.
Risk Factors of Uterine Fibroids
A few things can raise your chances of developing uterine fibroids, such as:
- Getting your period at a young age
- Birth control use
- Vitamin D deficiency
- Eating too much red meat and not enough green vegetables, fruit, or dairy
- Family history
You’re more likely to get fibroids if your mom or sister has had them.
Uterine Fibroid Diagnosis
Your doctor may suspect you have uterine fibroids just from feeling your uterus during a routine pelvic exam. If the shape of your uterus feels irregular or unusually large, they may order further tests, such as:
- Ultrasound. Ultrasounds use sound waves to take a picture of your uterus. A technician will place a device either in your vagina or on your abdomen to get the images. Then your doctor can see if you have fibroids and where and how large they are.
- Lab tests. Your doctor may want you to have blood tests to help figure out why you have fibroids. Your complete blood count (CBC) can help them decide whether you have anemia (low levels of red blood cells) or other bleeding disorders.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). If your doctor needs more information after you have an ultrasound, you may also have an MRI. MRIs show more detailed images of fibroids and can help doctors decide the best treatment. Your doctor may also suggest an MRI if you have a large uterus or are close to menopause.
- Hysterosonography. In this test, a technician pushes saline into your uterine cavity to make it larger. This helps them see fibroids that are growing into your uterus (submucosal fibroids) and the lining of your uterus. This is useful if you’re trying to get pregnant or have heavy periods.
- Hysterosalpingography. If your doctor needs to see if your fallopian tubes are blocked, you might have a hysterosalpingography. Your doctor uses dye to highlight your uterus and fallopian tubes on an X-ray to help see these areas better.
- Hysteroscopy. Your doctor inserts a small telescope with a light attached into your cervix. Then after injecting saline and expanding your uterine cavity, they can look at the walls of your uterus and fallopian tube opening.
Uterine Fibroid Treatment
There are many ways to treat fibroids. The treatment that works best for you will depend on whether you’re having symptoms, want to get pregnant, your age, and where your fibroids are.
Watchful waiting. If you have only mild symptoms -- or no symptoms -- your doctor may suggest you simply wait and see. Fibroids aren’t cancerous, and they may grow slowly or not at all. They also may shrink or go away after menopause.
Medications. Medications for fibroids treat your symptoms. Fibroids won’t go away but might shrink with some medications. They can also help with symptoms like pain and bleeding.
Oral birth control can reduce bleeding. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help ease pain. Vitamins and iron supplements can help with energy if you’re bleeding heavily and have anemia as a result.
Other medications include:
- Oriahnn, a combination of elagolix (a GnRH antagonist), estrogen and progestin, this is the first FDA-approved non-surgical, oral medication option for the management of heavy menstrual bleeding. Taking the medication can reduce the bleeding by an average of 50 percent..
- Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists that put you in a temporary menopause state by blocking estrogen and progesterone. This may shrink your fibroids. Your doctor may choose this option before you have surgery.
- A progestin-releasing intrauterine device (IUD) inserted into your uterus can help control heavy bleeding. It also prevents pregnancy.
- Tranexamic acid (Cyklokapron, Lysteda) is a medication that doesn’t involve hormones. You take it on days you’re bleeding heavily to slow your flow.
Surgery. If you have moderate or severe symptoms, you may need surgery for relief. Options include:
- Myomectomy. This surgery takes out fibroids while trying to leave healthy tissue alone. This might be your best option if you hope to become pregnant in the future. There are multiple ways to do a myomectomy, from major abdominal surgery to laparoscopy.
- Endometrial ablation. A surgeon uses either laser, wire loops, boiling water, electric current, microwaves, or freezing to remove or destroy the lining of your uterus. You may be able to have this minor surgery as an outpatient. Typically, you’ll stop having periods after it, and you will no longer be able to get pregnant.
- Uterine fibroid embolization (UFE), or uterine artery embolization (UAE). In this procedure, a doctor blocks the flow of blood to your fibroids by inserting gel or plastic particles into the nearby blood vessels. This makes the fibroids shrink.
- Hysterectomy. This surgery removes your uterus completely. This is the only way to cure fibroids entirely. It’s a major surgery, but your doctor has options for how to do it, including cutting through the abdomen or even laparoscopy.
Uterine Fibroid Prevention
Fibroids can’t be prevented, but there is some research that suggests certain lifestyle habits can reduce your chances.
One study found that high-sugar diets may be linked to a higher risk in some women. Another study found that eating fresh fruits and cruciferous vegetables like arugula, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, and turnip greens could lower your odds. Cruciferous vegetables are rich in beta-carotene, folate, vitamins C, E, and K, and other minerals. They’re also full of fiber.
Regular exercise also can lower your chances of uterine fibroids.