Since the disorder is so common and women's medical symptoms are so routinely minimized by doctors, it is important for us all to ask ourselves: What are the signs of endometriosis? How do we know if we should seek medical help? Lena Dunham's recent Instagram post detailing her battle with endometriosis has shed much-needed light on the common, painful, and misunderstood condition, which affects the reproductive and sexual health of one in 10 women worldwide.
First, it's important to understand what exactly happens to your body when you have the disorder. As Amanda Chatel wrote for Bustle, it is "a painful condition in which the uterine lining grows outside the uterus." Despite the prevalence of endometriosis, there is no cure, and medical researchers can't even explain for certain why the disorder results in such horrible pain for so many people. According to the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development, some theories suggest that the excess uterine lining puts pressure on nerve cells, that the endometrial patches (the places where the uterine lining grows outside of the uterus) contain their own nerve cells, that it helps cysts form, or that endometrial patches similarly shed uterine lining which stays in the body and irritates surrounding organs, among other potential reasons women undergo such suffering.
Given that the disorder affects the lives of so many women around the world, why do we know so little? Why is it not a priority in the medical research community?
We have established that the disorder requires much more scientific research. But again, given that the disorder affects the lives of so many women around the world, why do we know so little? The infuriating fact is that because medical science was originally designed by and for men, women's health has long been considered a specialized issue — not something vital to 50 percent of the population.
A recent article by Olivia Goldhill for Quartz explains, with insight from medical professionals, that some women's menstrual pain is comparable to that of a heart attack or a slipped disc. Goldhill's own period pain was ignored and misdiagnosed in one doctor's visit after another. "Around 10 percent of ovulating women in the US have endometriosis, and it takes on average 10 years to get an accurate diagnosis." If period pain is such a big problem, "why aren't we researching how to treat it?" Goldhill asks. Gender bias in medicine has always existed, since women's disorders go against the "textbook." But that's because "the textbook" was written for men. Scientists often don't even perform research on female lab rats because their reproductive systems "complicate" their studies. Um???
So it looks like we have to take control over our health since our pain will often be dismissed. So what should you do if any of the following symptoms apply to you? Tests include a pelvic exam and/or ultrasound, or allowing the doctor to both see and feel your insides and determine if endometrial patches (also called lesions) or cysts are present. If those tests are inconclusive, the doctor may recommend a minor surgery called laparoscopy, in which "your surgeon makes a tiny incision near your navel and inserts a slender viewing instrument, looking for endometrial tissue outside the uterus."
Different treatments work to alleviate pain for different women. As Dunham points out in her Instagram post, she has the privilege of being able to take time off of work to recover, and many women do not. Some women undergo hormone therapy to reduce the growth of the uterine lining, while others depend on surgeries, which range from removing the endometrial patches to removing their uterus, Fallopian tubes, or ovaries. Some women find relief through alternative routes, like a change in diet.
The first step to protecting our reproductive health is educating ourselves about apparently "mysterious" disorders that wouldn't be mysterious if our culture cared about women's health. Here are some signs that you may have endometriosis.
1. Pelvic Pain
A common symptom of endometriosis is pelvic pain, which can manifest as cramps or spasms. This pain normally occurs throughout your period, and should not be confused with the cramps that many women experience during menstruation. With endometriosis, the cramps are unusually painful, and this type of pain is one of the most frequent signs of the disorder.
Unfortunately, The Mayo Clinic reports that many who suffer from endometriosis describe the pain as worsening as they age. My mother suffered from endometriosis, and she compared it to the kind of pain she experienced during labor. The National Instituted of Child Health and Development states that, "Among women with pelvic pain, endometriosis may occur in about 75 percent."
2. Abnormal Menstrual Periods
The pelvic pain is often accompanied by unusually heavy periods, irregular cycles, and bleeding between periods. Some women with the disorder also get diarrhea during their periods. A person is considered to be at greater risk for developing endometriosis if they began menstruating at an especially young age.
Some women don't get diagnosed until they struggle with pregnancy and seek medical guidance. As stated by the Illinois Department of Public Health, endometriosis "is considered one of the three major causes of female infertility." The National Institute for Child Health and Human Development reports that "endometriosis may occur in as many as 50 percent" of women experiencing fertility issues. Endometriosis creates scar tissue around the uterus and ovaries which can impede fertilization.The disorder can also result in irregular ovulation — another potential roadblock. Thankfully, women who desire to become pregnant can find help through in vitro fertilization or hormone therapy.
4. Pain Going To The Bathroom
During your period, you may feel pain or intense discomfort while urinating or having a bowel movement.
5. Painful Sex
Intercourse can be extremely painful for women with endometriosis. The discomfort can be "sharp, stabbing, jabbing or a deep ache," usually felt in the abdomen. The experience varies among different people; some only feel pain during sex close to the start of their period. Others feel discomfort "throughout the month." Some only feel it in the moment of penetrative intercourse. For others, the pain can last for up to two days after intercourse. Endometriosis.org provides excellent advice for communicating your discomfort and needs to your sexual partner, so be sure to check it out.
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