Uterine fibroids are benign tumors that develop in the uterus. They are the most common pelvic tumor, affecting as many as one in five women during their childbearing years.
Doctors aren’t sure what causes fibroids, but it is thought that the hormones estrogen and progesterone encourage them to grow. Fibroids usually affect women over the age of 30. They are rare in women under 20 and often shrink and cause no symptoms in women who have gone through menopause.
Symptoms and Tests
Most women who develop uterine fibroids are unaware of them because they often cause no symptoms. They may be discovered incidentally during another medical procedure or regular pelvic examination.
When symptoms of uterine fibroids do occur, they may include:
- heavy, long period
- pain during intercourse
- back pain
- an increase in urinary frequency
A pelvic examination may show an irregularly shaped or enlarged uterus. Normally, this diagnosis is reliable. However, in some cases an ultrasound will be used to help a doctor see how large the fibroids are and where they are growing.
Treatment for uterine fibroids varies depending on age, overall health, severity of symptoms, and fibroid size and location. If symptoms are mild, a regularly scheduled pelvic exam may be enough to monitor the growth of fibroids. In many cases, uterine fibroids cause no medical problems and thus require no treatment.
However, if they do grow to the point of causing symptoms such as pain and heavy bleeding, treatments for uterine fibroids may include:
- Birth control pills (oral contraceptives) to help control heavy periods
- Intrauterine devices (IUDs) that release the hormone progestin to help reduce heavy bleeding and pain
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen for cramps or pain
- Iron supplements to prevent or treat anemia due to heavy periods
Other types of hormonal therapy or surgery can also be used to treat more severe cases of uterine fibroids.