|Definition: What Are Uterine Fibroids?
Uterine fibroids (image) are tumors that grow outside, inside or within the wall of the uterus (womb). Composed of muscle and fibrous tissue these growths can increase in size over time but do not become cancerous. A woman may develop just one fibroid growth, or many. They can range in size from a seed to a grapefruit. When they are large they can cause painful and heavy periods and sometimes create fertility problems. They are more common in women under the age of 30 and typically disappear naturally by menopause unless the woman is taking hormone replacement therapy. Fibroids are sometimes known as fibromyomas, leiomyomas or uterine myomas. They can also occur in a woman's breasts - a condition known as fibrocystic breast disease.
Uterine Fibroids are one of the most common forms of benign (non-cancerous) pelvic tumors in women. As many as 1 in 4 women will develop fibroids at some time in their reproductive years but because there may be no obvious symptoms, it often goes undiagnosed. Fibroids are more likely to occur in women between the ages of 20 and 30, and rarely in women before 20 or after menopause. Fibroids are particularly common in women of Afro-Caribbean origin and women who are obese.
There are several different types of fibroids, and diagnosing which type is present is important for determining the correct treatment. There are 3 main types of fibroids and two less common ones:
• Intramural Fibroids: This is the most common form of fibroid. It is a benign tumor which develops IN the muscle wall of the uterus. These tumors can cause the uterus to look larger which may be mistaken for weight gain or pregnancy. They can cause heavy periods, back and pelvic pain as well as the need to frequently urinate. See: fibroids and weight gain.
• Subserosal Fibroids: These tumors grow OUTSIDE the wall of the uterus and into the pelvis. They can become very large causing pain and pressure on other organs. They do not however usually affect a woman's menstruation cycle or flow.
• Submucosal Fibroids: Less common than the first two, these tumors develop WITHIN the inner lining of the uterus. These fibroids can cause excessive bleeding and prolonged heavy periods.
• Pedunculated Fibroids: Grow OUTSIDE the wall of the uterus but are attached to the uterus by a narrow stalk. Pain is associated with this type of fibroid as sometimes the stalk can twist.
• Cervical Fibroids: Develop IN the wall of the cervix (the neck of the uterus/womb).
Fibroids symptoms: In many cases, fibroids do not cause any obvious symptoms and it is quite common for a woman to have tumors without knowing it. The tumors often shrink without any treatment. Fibroids inside the uterus wall however may cause heavy bleeding (menorrhagia), painful periods (dysmenorrhea) as well as irregular or prolonged menstrual cycles (oligomenorrhea). Large fibroid tumors which grow into the pelvis might cause pain as well as the need to urinate frequently. Occasionally fibroids may lead to pregnancy and delivery problems as well as causing infertility and miscarriage.
Fibroids diagnosis: Women mostly discover they have fibroids through a routine pelvic exam. A doctor who suspects fibroids may order an ultrasound scan or more invasive diagnostic procedures to ensure other factors are not responsible, including ovarian cysts, endometriosis or endometrial cancer. Fibroids are not cancerous, but there is one rare form of uterine (endometrial) cancer (leiomyosarcoma) which can mimic fibroids.
The cause of fibroids remains unclear but there is some evidence to suggest that both estrogen and progesterone hormone levels play a role. In particular, increased levels of estrogen and reduced levels of progesterone.
Where a woman has no or minor symptoms, fibroids treatment may only only require visiting her physician or OB/GYN periodically to check fibroid size(s) and/or development. If a woman has serious symptoms which interfere with her daily life, drugs or surgery may be recommended. Ultimately hysterectomy remains an option for women over 35 who are longer considering children and would like final relief from symptoms. In fact fibroids account for nearly half of all hysterectomies carried out in the United States. See also: Fibroids during pregnancy.
No, fibroids cannot be prevented. However if a woman keeps her weight within the healthy weight range (BMI) for her height, she may reduce her risk of developing fibroids. Women with fibroids who choose to use contraceptive pills (which contain synthetic estrogen) should stay in contact with their doctor to ensure that symptoms do not develop or worsen. Recent studies seem to indicate however that a birth control pill with low dosages of estrogen do not appear to worsen fibroids. Additionally, as fibroids are linked to estrogen, following an anti-estrogen diet plan may help. Foods on a fibroids diet plan are known as 'fibroid shrinking foods'.
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