Uterine fibroids cause women of childbearing age considerable pain and grief. This sometimes-excruciating disorder robs women of their fertility in some cases and impacts overall quality of life for many. But what causes uterine fibroids to grow — and what the heck are they?
Medical professionals know uterine fibroids consist of tumors that grow upon the uterine wall. Although this sounds frightening, the vast majority of fibroids never turn cancerous. What causes uterine fibroids to grow in some women remains a medical mystery.
Types of Uterine Fibroids
Four types of uterine fibroids exist, and determining which type of fibroids a woman suffers from partially determines how quickly these fibroids grow. Submucosal fibroids remain rare, thriving in the layer just below the surface of the uterus and sometimes protruding into the uterine cavity. This type of fibroid usually requires minimally invasive surgery to treat.
Intramural fibroids, the most common type of fibroid tumors, grow within the uterine wall. This type of fibroid grows slowly, so early detection leads to few, if any, long-term complications. Subserosal fibroids grow outside the uterine wall, and, as they do not distort the inside of the uterus, doctors can treat this type of fibroid using a variety of hormonal IUD in women not trying to conceive.
The final type of fibroid, pedunculated fibroids, dangle from long stems located both inside and outside the uterus. Because these tumors feed on arterial blood, they multiply quickly and require the most aggressive treatment, especially if the affected woman hopes to maintain her fertility.
What Causes Uterine Fibroids to Grow?
Researchers suspect genetic factors play a predominant role in which women develop quick-growing uterine fibroids. Genes determine how much estrogen and progesterone the body produces, and slight variations in the levels of these hormones may encourage fibroid growth.
Depending upon the unique genetic makeup any individual woman possesses, hormonal birth control may either diminish fibroid growth or accelerate it. Because of this, women using the pill or other hormonal birth control methods such as the Depo-Provera shot or the Mirena IUD should contact their OB/GYN immediately should they develop symptoms of pelvic pain and unusually heavy menstrual periods after commencing use, as this may indicate fibroid growth.
The fact that women genetically predisposed to becoming overweight often also develop fibroids lends credibility to the role of DNA in rapid fibroid growth. Additionally, women of African-American descent run a higher risk of developing fibroids.
Some research suggests dietary factors may also play a role in whether women go on to develop fibroids. Preliminary studies indicate women who eat a diet high in dairy foods such as milk, butter and cheese run a substantially lower risk of developing the disorder. Likewise, sipping green tea may inhibit fibroid growth.
Diagnosing Uterine Fibroids
Although many women suffering from uterine fibroids endure terrible pelvic pain, some women remain unaware they have fibroids until they undergo a routine pelvic exam. For this reason, women, especially those hoping to conceive, should attend their annual Pap smears religiously.
Also, women who experience pain with intercourse, frequent urination and swelling in the abdomen should make an immediate appointment with their OB/GYN. While fibroids themselves rarely lead to fatality, the symptoms of fibroids closely resemble the symptoms of ovarian cancer. Only a thorough medical workup can discern the correct diagnosis, as well as the degree of danger a woman faces.
Sometimes, fibroids grow to massive size. In these cases, the uterus swells, causing a condition known as ascites. Particularly large fibroid tumors create the risk of rupture, which can become life-threatening, so women experiencing severe abdominal swelling unrelated to changes in calorie intake and exercise should seek immediate emergency medical care.
Treatments for Uterine Fibroids
Multiple treatments exist for uterine fibroids, including medications, dietary changes and surgical interventions. Low-dose hormonal birth control can shrink certain types of uterine fibroids. Also, birth control containing progesterone, such as the Depo-Provera shot and the Mirena IUD often slow the growth of tumors and prevent new ones from forming.
Surgical interventions range from minimally invasive to extreme, depending on the size and number of fibroids griping the patient. One minimally invasive tactic that often saves fertility in women of childbearing age involves uterine artery embolization, or UAE. During this surgical procedure, a micro-thin tube injects gel particles into the blood vessels feeding the fibroids. With no blood supply, fibroids soon disappear.
Another surgical technique, myomectomy, involves surgically removing only the fibroid tissue while leaving the rest of the lining of the uterus intact. Women wishing to become pregnant can do so after a myomectomy. However, if the fibroids embed too deeply in the uterine wall, they may need to deliver via C-section.
A complete hysterectomy removes fibroids altogether, but as this procedure renders women infertile, women should wait until they complete bearing children to select this option.
The Future of Fibroid Treatment
Techniques such as UAE promise to protect female fertility while treating tricky uterine fibroid problems. Additionally, advances in medicine hold promise in shrinking fibroid tumors to the point where myomectomies more easily scrape fibroid tissue from the uterine wall without damaging fertility.
Many women may wonder what causes uterine fibroids to grow and what they can do to avoid them. Know that with early intervention and treatment, many women with uterine fibroids go on to lead healthy lives and bear healthy children. Always stay alert as to what you’re feeling so you can spot conditions like this early.