If you’ve ever noticed that your periods and menstrual cramps seem more severe than those of other women, uterine fibroids may be to blame. Fibroid symptoms include heavy menstruation, pelvic pain or pressure, frequent urination, a diminished sex drive, and low energy levels. Women often develop fibroids during their reproductive years — with up to 80% affected by age 50. Despite the prevalence of this condition, most people don’t realize that they are at risk.
Uterine fibroids are non-cancerous tumors that grow within or on the uterus. While some patients develop a single fibroid, others experience multiple growths. They range in size from that of a tiny seed to as large as a melon — with the largest weighing over 20 pounds. Understandably, sufferers often ask, “are uterine fibroids dangerous?” and may even believe fibroid tumors are cancerous.
The good news is that these benign growths are not life-threatening by themselves. However, fibroids have the potential to harm surrounding organs, negatively impact fertility, and cause a variety of painful and unpleasant symptoms. Fibroid symptoms can affect your daily life and even become debilitating.
So what do uterine fibroids look like and how are uterine fibroids diagnosed? Fibroids are usually round and firm — and appear this way on an ultrasound or MRI. These types of imaging tests are useful diagnostic tools, though fibroids are often first detected during a routine pelvic exam. Doctors and researchers are still investigating what causes uterine fibroids to grow in the first place.
Types of Uterine Fibroids
Uterine Fibroid Degeneration
This condition occurs when a fibroid outgrows its blood supply. When the connecting blood vessels can no longer provide enough oxygen to a fibroid, its cells begin to die or degenerate, and the fibroid shrinks. This reduction in size is usually temporary, since a degenerated fibroid will often expand and degenerate again. This process can cause painful and disruptive fibroid degeneration symptoms such as:
- Acute abdominal pain, lasting a few days to a few weeks
- Swelling of the abdomen
- In rare cases, fibroid degeneration discharge can occur
Fibroid degeneration during pregnancy, called necrobiosis, can result in abdominal pain and bleeding. These symptoms may be especially alarming for a pregnant woman. Another fibroid degeneration type, known as red degeneration of fibroids, is rare but most often reported during pregnancy when it occurs. This involves a fibroid outgrowing its blood supply, turning red, then dying.
Uterine fibroids come in four main types, classified by location within the uterus:
The type, size, location, and number of growths impact which fibroid tumors in uterus symptoms occur, as well as their severity. Be on the lookout for these signs of fibroid tumors:
- Enlarged uterus
- Pelvic or lower back pain
- Abnormal bleeding
- Anemia-induced fatigue
- Painful sexual intercourse
- Frequent urination
- Severe cramps or pelvic pressure
Even though fibroid tumors are not cancerous, there are other important reasons to treat them — such as to resolve pain. Fibroid sufferers should be aware that fibroid tumor treatment options include both surgical and non-surgical methods.
Intramural uterine fibroids are embedded in the muscular wall of the uterus; technically, all fibroids begin this way. It is common for intramural uterine fibroids to grow in clusters. This classification of fibroid typically causes mild symptoms, if any at all. There are several subtypes, based on location:
- Anterior intramural fibroids grow in the front of the uterus
- Posterior intramural fibroids grow in the back of the uterus
- Fundal intramural fibroids grow in the upper section of the uterus
Many clients ask how to remove intramural fibroids or how to treat intramural fibroids naturally. A variety of fibroid treatments are available, including hysterectomy — the surgical removal of the uterus — along with less invasive, non-surgical options such as Uterine Fibroid Embolization. It is also possible that lifestyle changes — such as weight loss, dietary improvements, and the elimination of alcohol and smoking — may help stabilize or reduce the size of your fibroids.
A subserosal uterine fibroid is a benign tumor that grows on the outside of the uterus and bulges into the pelvic or abdominal cavity. These growths can be attached to the uterus directly or via a thin stalk. Subserosal uterine fibroids vary in size and location, which can influence your fibroid symptoms. Typically, subserosal uterine fibroids cause somewhat different symptoms than intramural or submucosal fibroids, which grow inside the uterine cavity.
As a result of their external location, subserosal fibroids tend to have less of an effect on uterine function and more impact on neighboring organs such as the bladder.
Although women may experience different symptoms, common ones include:
- Frequent urination
- Difficulty emptying the bladder
- Abdominal cramping or pain
- A heavy or full feeling in the abdomen
- A protruding abdomen or belly
If you are concerned about subserosal uterine fibroids and pregnancy complications — whether related to fundal subserosal fibroids and pregnancy, anterior wall subserosal fibroids, or other fibroid subtypes — be sure to discuss this topic with your doctor.
As discussed above, some fibroids outgrow their blood supply, leading to the process of fibroid degeneration. During degeneration, calcium deposits can build up on top of the remaining fibroid tissue. The result is referred to as a calcified uterine fibroid. Can calcified fibroids cause problems? Certainly, but the effects vary. A calcified fibroid tumor may continue to cause regular fibroid symptoms, or may prompt new or increased ones.
Calcification often occurs after menopause, since changes in hormones can affect fibroid growth and degeneration. However, it can also occur during the reproductive years. If you are pre-menopausal and have a calcified fibroid, you may experience:
- Heavier periods
- Concern about complications with a calcified fibroid pregnancy
- Anxiety about when should a calcified fibroid be removed
If this description sounds like you, we encourage you to discuss calcified fibroid treatment options with a fibroid specialist.
Causes of Uterine Fibroids
A growing body of research about what causes fibroid tumors is helping us better understand this complex health issue. Doctors believe there are several contributing factors to the development of fibroids: Genetics, hormones, other growth factors, and extracellular matrix (ECM). Along with these possible causes, a number of lifestyle-related risk factors have been identified, such as frequently eating red meat, not getting enough fruits or vegetables, regularly drinking alcohol or caffeine, and not drinking enough water.
Clinically, having a Vitamin D deficiency, beginning menstruation at an early age, demonstrating a high Body Mass Index (BMI), and having high blood pressure may all increase your likelihood of developing fibroids.
Genetic sequencing has indicated genetic changes within fibroids that differ from normal uterine muscle cells. Scientists have found that more than 70% of fibroids possess a mutation of the single gene MED12. If you’re wondering, “are fibroids genetic?” evidence does indicate that if you have a close family member with fibroids, you’re more likely to develop them.
Can hormones affect fibroids? This seems likely. If you’re wondering what hormone feeds fibroids, there are several. Researchers do know that hormones which stimulate the uterine lining during the menstrual cycle, such as estrogen and progesterone, play a major role in fibroid development. Research has shown that fibroids possess more estrogen and progesterone receptors than normal uterine muscle. Once hormone production
declines — for example, after menopause or pregnancy — fibroids often shrink.
Although doctors have found a connection between hormones and fibroids, a direct cause-and-effect relationship remains unproven. New research is asking the opposite question — can fibroids affect hormones? Again, more research is needed in order to understand the association between the two.
Other Growth Factors
Insulin-like growth factor (IGF), a protein made by the body that stimulates the growth of many different types of cells, is another possible cause of uterine fibroids. It may also have an impact on additional fibroid growth. For those interested in learning how to control fibroid growth, we recommend discussing fibroid treatment and possible lifestyle changes with your doctor.
The most effective methods to reduce uterine fibroid growth rates, or eliminate growth altogether, are fibroid surgery or a less-invasive Uterine Fibroid Embolization treatment.
Extracellular Matrix (ECM)
Research suggests that extracellular matrix function has a role in the growth of uterine fibroids. So what is extracellular matrix (ECM)? It is a material that causes cells to stick together, giving fibroids their fibrous consistency. Along with this trait, storing growth factors and causing changes within the cells are also attributed to extracellular matrix. Uterine fibroids have been scientifically linked to an increased production of ECM.
Diagnosis & Prognosis
If you suspect you may have uterine fibroids, you may be wondering what comes next. The first thing to do is get a proper medical diagnosis. This is extremely important because a variety of other conditions share similar symptoms as fibroids. Some of these may be life-threatening.
While fibroids are frequently discovered during a routine pelvic exam, there are other occasions when patients ask for medical intervention due to debilitating symptoms. Experiencing the process of fibroid degeneration, in particular, often prompts sufferers to seek treatment.
To diagnose fibroid tumors — whether intramural fibroids, subserosal fibroids, calcified fibroids, or other types — doctors use a variety of methods that include:
- Pelvic exam: Doctors are often able to feel an enlarged or misshapen uterus, either of which may indicate the presence of fibroids.
- Ultrasound: If fibroids are suspected, this is usually the first — and sometimes only — imaging test ordered.
- MRI: When more information is required, this detailed imaging exam allows your medical provider to more clearly see the size, number, and location of fibroids.
- Hysterosonography: This test — also called a saline infusion sonogram — can be used to expand the uterine cavity for a better look inside.
- Hysteroscopy: Less commonly, this surgical procedure is performed to see directly into the uterine cavity.
Certain types of fibroids are more likely to cause painful or unpleasant symptoms. As previously discussed, intramural fibroids tend to cause mild symptoms, if any. Fibroid degeneration, on the other hand, can cause severe pain and bleeding for a period of days to weeks as cells die and the fibroid shrinks. Calcified fibroids develop during fibroid degeneration and can result in new, ongoing, or increased symptoms. Subserosal fibroids often have less impact on uterine symptoms, but tend to cause issues related to surrounding organs like the bladder.
A variety of fibroid treatment options are available. These may include surgical ones — such as hysterectomy or myomectomy — and non-surgical methods such as the use of medications, or an effective outpatient procedure called Uterine Fibroid Embolization.
Commonly Misdiagnosed Conditions
What is Adenomyosis?
The condition of uterine adenomyosis occurs when the inner lining of your uterus, also known as endometrial tissue, breaks through the muscular wall of your uterus. Despite being displaced, this tissue then continues to thicken, break down, and bleed during your menstrual cycle.
Adenomyosis symptoms include:
- Severe menstrual cramps
- Heavy bleeding during or in between your periods
- Abdominal pressure and bloating
Although it sounds similar, an adenomyosis uterus differs from one with endometriosis — a condition in which the inner lining of the uterus begins to grow outside of it. Women of reproductive age should be aware that adenomyosis and pregnancy complications have been linked. If you suspect you may have adenomyosis, endometriosis, fibroids, or any other condition of the reproductive tract, be sure to discuss your symptoms with a doctor.
Treatment of Uterine Fibroids
We recommend seeking uterine fibroid treatment if your symptoms are impacting your career, social relationships, sex life, self-esteem, and/or ability to perform normal daily activities. Discovering the best treatment for fibroids — especially if you’d prefer to avoid the risks of major surgery and its lengthy recovery — may be surprisingly easy. Along with discussing symptoms and a diagnosis with your doctor, we recommend consulting a fibroid specialist in order to understand the full range of uterine fibroids treatment options.
Although many women believe that hysterectomy — the surgical removal of the uterus — is the only uterine fibroids treatment available, this simply isn’t true. At USA Fibroid Centers, we want you to know about Uterine Fibroid Embolization (UFE) — a less-invasive, lower risk, FDA-approved outpatient treatment that preserves your uterus and can eliminate painful, uncomfortable, and inconvenient symptoms. For most patients, the recovery time is a short one to two weeks.
Our primary goal is to get you back to living life to its fullest. To learn more about fibroid treatment without surgery, schedule a consultation with a fibroid expert at USA Fibroid Centers today.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Are uterine fibroids cancerous?
No. Uterine fibroids are non-cancerous, benign tumors.
What causes uterine fibroids to grow?
The cause(s) of uterine fibroids is not entirely understood. However, research studies have indicated that the growth of uterine fibroids may relate to a number of different factors such as genetic changes, hormones, taking growth hormone substances, and extracellular matrix (ECM).
When do uterine fibroids need to be removed?
We recommend seeking treatment if your fibroid symptoms are interfering with any aspect of your life including your career, exercise routine, sex life, self-esteem, or social interactions.
Do uterine fibroids burst?
It is extremely rare that uterine fibroids rupture, but when they do, it can be life-threatening. If you have fibroids and experience sudden and severe abdominal pain, please visit a medical professional immediately.
Where are uterine fibroids located?
Uterine fibroids grow in or along the uterine walls. Fibroid sub-types are categorized by location:
- Submucosal fibroids grow into the uterine cavity
- Intramural fibroids grow within the uterine wall
- Subserosal fibroids grow outside of the uterus
- Pedunculated fibroids grow on stems from the uterine surface or into the uterine cavity
How do uterine fibroids affect pregnancy?
For most women with fibroids, pregnancy and delivery proceed as expected. However, it is possible that uterine fibroids can cause complications of your pregnancy and, in rare cases, infertility. Complications may include:
- Fetal growth restriction
- Placental abruption
- Preterm delivery
- C-section delivery
- Breech baby
Are uterine fibroids serious?
These non-cancerous tumors are not considered dangerous, but they have the potential to cause harm to surrounding organs. Fibroids can also result in painful and undesirable symptoms.
Why do fibroids cause back pain?
A uterine fibroid pressing on a spinal or pelvic nerve, vein, or artery can cause back pain. This pain may radiate beyond the lower back to the hip, buttock, or thigh, or down the leg.
At USA Fibroid Centers, we are dedicated to providing effective solutions for fibroid symptoms. Our treatment is minimally-invasive and covered by most insurance plans. If you think you may have uterine fibroids, contact us today to discuss all your treatment options.