While there is currently no cure for endometriosis, there are treatment options available to help ease the symptoms and limit progression of the disease.
Specific treatment for endometriosis will be determined by your healthcare provider based on the specifics of your condition and factors such as your age, overall health, medical history, and whether or not you plan to have children.
Generally, doctors recommend trying conservative treatment approaches such as medication first, reserving surgery as a last resort.
Types of treatments for endometriosis
Treatments for endometriosis fall into the categories of pain relief, hormonal treatment, and surgery.
Treatments for pain
Pain is the most common symptom of endometriosis, and it can be very severe. Pain medications range from over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol (Acetaminophen) to powerful opioids available only by prescription.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may work well for mild or moderate pain. Some NSAIDs such as Aspirin, Advil (Ibuprofen) and Aleve (Naproxen) are available over the counter, while Celebrex (Celecoxib) and Voltaren (Diclofenac) require a prescription. NSAIDs are believed to work by inhibiting the production of chemicals that promote inflammation and blood clot formation in the body. Taken regularly at high doses, some NSAIDs can cause gastrointestinal problems and abnormal bleeding.
For more severe pain, some women require opioids such Codeine, Ultram (Tramadol), and Percocet (Oxycodone/Acetaminophen). Opioids are believed to work on the brain by altering the body’s ability to perceive pain. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, regular use of opioids – even as prescribed by a doctor – can lead to dependence. If misused, opioids can cause overdose and death.
Some women find that acupuncture treatments, heating pads, or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) can provide endometriosis pain relief.
Hormonal treatments for endometriosis
Hormones regulate the reproductive system and the menstrual cycle. In women with endometriosis, hormone-based treatments seek to limit symptoms and slow the progress of the disease by controlling the level of hormones in the body. Hormonal treatments can offer the majority of women lighter and shorter menstrual periods, or even stop periods altogether. Most hormonal treatments are types of birth control. When treatment stops, the symptoms of endometriosis will return, as will the ability to become pregnant.
Combination oral contraceptives
Combination birth control pills contain two hormones: estrogen and progestin. Oral contraceptives make a woman’s period lighter, shorter, and more regular while keeping pain levels lower. There are a large number of branded and generic birth control pills on the market containing varying amounts of both hormones.
Some women taking birth control pills experience mild side effects such as weight gain, bloating, and bleeding between periods, especially for the first few weeks or months of taking them.
Combination hormone therapy is also available as a skin patch or a vaginal ring.
Progesterone and progestin therapy
Some birth control methods contain the single hormone progesterone or its synthetic version, progestin. Progestin-only treatments are administered as a pill, by injection such as Depo-Provera, or inserted as an intrauterine device (IUD) such as Mirena. Progestin-only therapies can shorten and lighten a woman's period or stop it altogether.
Oral forms include brands like Provera. Once a woman stops taking the progestin pill, symptoms can reappear.
Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists
GnRH agonists such as Lupron (Leuprorelin acetate) prevent the production of estrogens, sending the body into a menopausal state. Women taking GnRH agonists will not ovulate or menstruate, and they cannot get pregnant. Endometriosis symptoms are usually minimized, and the disease will not progress while taking the medication. GnRH agonists are administered as a nasal spray or an injection.
Common side effects of GnRH agonists are symptoms typical of menopause including hot flashes, tiredness, problems sleeping, headache, depression, joint and muscle stiffness, and vaginal dryness. Remaining on GnRH agonists for more than six months at a time can raise the risk for heart complications and bone loss. Most doctors recommend taking breaks for several months between courses of GnRH.
Danocrine (Danazol) is another hormonal treatment that stops the release of hormones involved in the menstrual cycle. Danocrine is a male steroid hormone, or androgen, that creates a menopause-like effect similar to GnRH agonists.
Many women experience side effects while taking Danocrine that include oily skin, acne, weight gain, muscle cramps, tiredness, smaller breasts, and sore breasts. Danocrine may cause masculinizing effects such as deepened voice or increased hair growth.
Surgery for endometriosis
Laparoscopy surgery is necessary to diagnose endometriosis, and many women undergo laparoscopic surgery to remove endometrial growths. Laparoscopy is a minimally invasive surgical method during which small incisions are made in the abdominal wall. The surgeon inserts a small camera and surgical tools into the pelvic cavity to examine and cut or burn away endometrial implants and remove adhesions.
In more severe and extensive cases of endometriosis, laparotomy may be necessary. Also known as a traditional or open incision, laparotomy involves a longer abdominal incision to allow the surgeon full access to remove harder-to-reach endometrial implants and adhesions while preserving healthy tissue.
In the most severe cases of endometriosis, a woman may opt for a hysterectomy to surgically remove the uterus and possibly the ovaries (oophorectomy). Hysterectomy may be performed via laparoscopy, with a traditional incision, or through the vagina. A hysterectomy may not stop symptoms of endometriosis since the body continues to produce estrogen.
After a hysterectomy, a woman will no longer be able to have children. If the ovaries are also removed, a woman will immediately enter menopause no matter what age she is. Hysterectomy, especially before the age of 35, has been shown to raise long-term risk for developing high blood pressure, obesity, and heart disease.
Can diet help endometriosis?
Scientists have studied diet as it relates to the development of endometriosis. Research indicates that high-fat diets containing large amounts of red meat and animal fats increase the risk for developing endometriosis. The theory is that these foods may raise estrogen levels. The same studies show that women with diets high in fiber, fresh fruit, and vegetables were less likely to develop endometriosis than women with meat-based diets. There has not been a study on whether a similar diet can benefit women who already have endometriosis.
Alcohol and caffeine consumption can worsen symptoms for some women with endometriosis.
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