About 5 million American women are living with endometriosis. Endometriosis happens when the tissue that lines your uterus, called the endometrium, starts growing outside of your uterus. Patches of tissue may appear on your ovaries or fallopian tubes, the outside of your uterus or on your bladder, intestines or other organs.
Uterine tissue tends to bleed every month when you get your period – no matter where it is in your body. Without the vagina to escape through, the blood can irritate other areas, causing swelling, scarring and pain.
Symptoms of endometriosis
Pain is the number one symptom of endometriosis, but the pain can affect women in different ways. You might experience severe period cramps, back or pelvic pain or deep pain in your belly during or after sex. If uterine tissue grows on your intestines or bladder, you might also feel pain when you urinate or have a bowel movement, especially during your period.
Other symptoms can include:
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Upset stomach
- Unusually heavy blood flow during your period or bleeding between periods
Bleeding between periods can be a red flag for other conditions like ovarian cancer, so tell your OBGYN if you have this symptom.
Don’t ignore the signs
If you suspect that you have endometriosis, make an appointment with your OBGYN. No one should suffer in silence, plus the blood that builds up outside of your uterus can create other health problems, including:
- Ovarian cysts: An ovarian cyst can turn into a medical emergency if it suddenly breaks open, causing heavy internal bleeding.
- Adhesions: Adhesions can form as your tissues heal after an episode of bleeding. Scar tissue may block off your intestines or make it harder to get pregnant.
- Infertility: According to some estimates, about 30 to 40 percent of women with endometriosis have problems with fertility.
The first step in diagnosing endometriosis is typically a pelvic exam. Your doctor may also recommend an ultrasound or a trans-vaginal ultrasound. However, the only way to know for sure that you have endometriosis is to undergo a type of surgery called laparoscopy.
During a laparoscopy, a surgeon will make small cuts on your belly and then send a narrow tube with a camera on the end through the openings. The camera is used to get close-up views of painful tissues. Your surgeon can also remove samples of tissue, and then take a closer look at them under a microscope, called a biopsy.
How is endometriosis treated?
There’s no known cure for endometriosis, but hormone or pain medications can help ease your symptoms. When medications don’t offer relief, some women opt for surgery to remove painful patches of tissue. If you undergo surgery, you may need to continuously take hormone medications afterwards to keep the tissues from growing back.
Ways to lower your risk of endometriosis
There’s no way to prevent endometriosis, but you can lower your risk by:
- Exercising regularly: Exercising three to four times a week and having less body fat can help keep endometriosis at bay or control its symptoms. That’s because body fat makes the hormone estrogen, and high levels of estrogen lead to heavier periods.
- Cutting down on caffeine and alcohol: Both alcohol and caffeine, especially green tea and sodas, raise estrogen levels.
Don’t let pain from endometriosis keep you from living your life. If you’re having symptoms, make an appointment with your OBGYN. They can confirm your diagnosis and create a treatment plan that’s right for you.
This content originally appeared on Sharecare.com.