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Uterine fibroids are common, non-cancerous or benign tumors that can grow in a woman's womb, or uterus. You might be surprised to learn that one in five women may have this sometimes painful problem during their childbearing years and half of all women will probably have them by age 50. So, let's talk about uterine fibroids.
Fibroids are abnormal growths made of smooth muscle cells. The cause of uterine fibroids is unknown, but their growth has been linked to estrogen, a hormone that plays a vital role in pregnancy and how your body uses calcium and maintains healthy cholesterol levels. As long as a woman with fibroids is menstruating, a fibroid will probably continue to grow, usually slowly. As many as 40% though will shrink on their own. Fibroids can be tiny, detectable only by microscope, or they may grow very large, even filling the entire uterus.
Most fibroids are small and cause no symptoms at all. If you do have symptoms, the most common symptoms of fibroids is heavy or prolonged periods. Bleeding between periods is not typical of fibroids. Fibroids can also cause fullness, pressure, or pain. For instance, a fibroid pressing on the bladder can make the bladder seem smaller, or more difficult to empty. A fibroid pressing on the rectum, can cause constipation. Particularly painful periods are often reported by many women with fibroids, especially those who pass blood clots or who have very heavy flow. Fibroids that change the shape of the inside of the uterus can make it difficult to conceive, or to carry a baby to term.
To treat uterine fibroids, your doctor will first perform a pelvic exam to see if you have a change in the shape of your uterus. You may need an ultrasound or a pelvic MRI to confirm the diagnosis of fibroids. Your doctor may take a sample of tissue called a biopsy to rule out cancer.
Once your doctor diagnoses fibroids, treatments may include birth control pills to manage heavy periods, intrauterine devices that release the hormone progestin to help reduce heavy bleeding and pain, or iron supplements to prevent or treat anemia due to heavy periods.
Women who have fibroids growing inside the uterine cavity may need an outpatient procedure to remove the tumors. A procedure called uterine artery embolization can stop the blood supply to a fibroid, causing it to shrink and die. Surgery called myomectomy removes fibroids, especially for women who want to have children. Finally, some women may need a hysterectomy, or the removal of the uterus, if medicines do not work and other surgeries and procedures are not an option.
Most women with fibroids may have no symptoms at all and may need no treatment at all. During pregnancy, existing fibroids may grow due to increased blood flow and estrogen levels. But they usually return to their original size after the baby is born.
Call your health care provider if you have changes in your periods, including heavier bleeding, increased cramping, or a feeling of fullness or heaviness in your lower belly area.
- Last reviewed on 2/19/2016
- Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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