What is uterine fibroids?

Uterine Fibroids

Uterine fibroids: Overview

Uterine fibroids are growths in the uterus. Fibroids aren't cancer. Doctors don't know what causes fibroids. But they are more common as you age, especially from your 30s and 40s and through menopause. After menopause, fibroids often shrink and go away.

Fibroids can grow on the inside of the uterus, in the muscle wall of the uterus, or near the outside wall of the uterus. Fibroids can cause painful cramps and heavy periods. In these cases, an intrauterine device (IUD) can help decrease symptoms. It can also help to take anti-inflammatory medicines or hormone birth control. Sometimes surgery is needed to treat fibroids. But if you are near menopause, you may want to wait and see if your symptoms get better.

Uterine fibroids

Uterine fibroids are growths on or in your uterus. Although they are sometimes called fibroid tumors, they aren't cancer. You don't need to do anything about them unless they are causing problems.

What happens when you have uterine fibroids?

Uterine fibroids can grow on the inside wall of the uterus, within the muscle wall of the uterus, or on the outer wall of the uterus. They can alter the shape of the uterus as they grow. Over time, the size, shape, location, and symptoms of fibroids can change.

Uterine fibroids are more common as you age, especially from your 30s and 40s through menopause (around age 50). Uterine fibroids can stay the same for years with few or no symptoms, or you can have a sudden, rapid growth of fibroids.

Fibroids do not grow before the start of menstrual periods (puberty). They sometimes grow larger during the first trimester of pregnancy, and they usually shrink for the rest of a pregnancy. After menopause, when hormone levels drop, fibroids usually shrink and don't come back.

What are the symptoms of uterine fibroids?

Uterine fibroid symptoms can develop slowly over several years or quickly over several months. Fibroids often cause mild symptoms or none at all. But sometimes the symptoms become a problem. The types of symptoms you have can depend on where the fibroid is found in the uterus.

Uterine fibroid symptoms and problems include:

Abnormal menstrual bleeding.

This includes:

  • Heavier, prolonged periods that can cause anemia.
  • Painful periods.
  • Spotting before or after periods.
  • Bleeding between periods.
Pelvic pain and pressure.

This includes:

  • Pain in the belly, pelvis, or low back.
  • Pain during sexual intercourse.
  • Bloating and feelings of pressure in the belly.
Urinary problems.

These include:

  • Frequent urination.
  • Kidney blockage following ureter blockage (rare).
Other symptoms.

These may include:

  • Difficult or painful bowel movements.
  • Difficulty getting pregnant.
  • Problems with pregnancy, such as placental abruption and preterm labor.

Uterine fibroid: In the uterine wall

Location of uterus and ovaries, with detail of fibroid growing in uterine wall

Fibroids can grow in the muscle wall of the uterus. These are called intramural fibroids.

How are uterine fibroids treated?

If your fibroids aren't bothering you, you don't need to do anything about them. Your doctor may check them during your regular visits to see if they have gotten bigger.

But if you have a fibroid problem, there are several treatments to consider. What treatment you choose may depend on how bad your symptoms are, if you want to get pregnant, and how close you are to menopause.

Medicines

Medicines are used to relieve symptoms like heavy menstrual bleeding or painful periods. These medicines include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). They can improve menstrual cramping and reduce bleeding.
  • Birth control hormones (pill, patch, or ring). They lighten menstrual bleeding and pain while preventing pregnancy.
  • An intrauterine device (IUD) that releases small amounts of progestin into the uterus. It may reduce heavy menstrual bleeding.
  • A progestin shot (Depo-Provera) every 3 months. It may lighten your bleeding.
  • Tranexamic acid. This is a medicine that can reduce bleeding by helping blood to clot.
  • Gonadotropin-releasing hormone analogue (GnRH-a) therapy. This shrinks the fibroids. It may be used to shrink fibroids before surgery. It can also help with symptoms.
  • Iron supplements. They can help correct anemia caused by fibroid blood loss.

Procedures and surgery

If you have fibroid-related pain, heavy bleeding, or a large fibroid that is pressing on other organs, there are treatments you can try that shrink or remove your fibroids. After all treatments except hysterectomy, fibroids may grow back or new fibroids can grow. If you plan to get pregnant, talk with your doctor about which treatment is right for you.

Shrinking or destroying fibroids without surgery.
  • Uterine fibroid embolization stops the blood supply to the fibroid. The fibroid then shrinks.
  • MRI-guided focused ultrasound uses high-intensity ultrasound waves to destroy the fibroids.
Surgery to remove fibroids.

This surgery is called myomectomy. It preserves the uterus. This means you may be able to get pregnant in the future.

Surgery to remove the entire uterus.

This surgery is called hysterectomy. It may be an option if you have no future pregnancy plans.

For infertility and pregnancy problems

Fibroids don't often affect fertility. But if a fibroid distorts the wall of the uterus, it can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. Surgery to remove the fibroid may improve your chances of getting pregnant.

When nearing menopause

If you are nearing menopause and can tolerate your symptoms, you can try to control them with home treatment and medicine. After menopause, your estrogen and progesterone levels will drop. This causes most fibroids to shrink and symptoms often improve.

How is uterine fibroid embolization (UFE) used to treat uterine fibroids?

Uterine fibroid embolization (UFE) shrinks or destroys uterine fibroids. It does this by blocking the artery that supplies blood to them.

This procedure is also called uterine artery embolization.

During UFE, a doctor places a thin, flexible tube called a catheter into the upper thigh. It is guided into the uterine artery that supplies blood to the fibroids. A liquid is then injected into the uterine artery through the catheter.

UFE is a nonsurgical option to hysterectomy or myomectomy. It relieves most fibroid symptoms. But in rare cases it can lead to problems, such as infection or early menopause.

UFE may be an option when:

  • You don't want to get pregnant in the future. It's possible to get pregnant after UFE. But there may be risks.
  • You still have heavy uterine bleeding or anemia after several months of treatment with birth control hormones and a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID).
  • You have fibroid pain or pelvic pressure that affects your quality of life.
  • You have urinary or bowel problems from a fibroid that is pressing on your bladder, ureter, or bowel.
  • You don't want to have a hysterectomy or myomectomy.
  • You have a disease or disorder that makes surgery with general anesthesia dangerous.

You can still get pregnant after UFE. If you need to prevent pregnancy after UFE, use birth control.

How are uterine fibroids diagnosed?

To find out if you have fibroids, your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and your menstrual periods. Your doctor will do a pelvic exam to check the size of your uterus.

You may get an ultrasound or another type of test that shows pictures of your uterus. These help your doctor see how large your fibroids are and where they are growing.

Your doctor may also do blood tests to look for anemia or other problems. You may have a hysteroscopy. This lets your doctor check the inside of your uterus. And sometimes an MRI is used before surgery to check the size and location of the fibroids.

How are medicines used to treat uterine fibroids?

Medicine can be used to help relieve uterine fibroid problems. But when treatment is stopped, symptoms usually return.

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may help with menstrual cramping and heavy bleeding.
  • Birth control hormones (pill, patch, or ring) reduce heavy menstrual periods and pain.
  • An IUD that releases small amounts of a certain hormone (levonorgestrel) may reduce heavy menstrual bleeding.
  • A progestin shot (Depo-Provera) may lighten your bleeding.
  • Tranexamic acid is a medicine that can reduce bleeding by helping blood to clot.
  • Iron supplements can help anemia.
  • Gonadotropin-releasing hormone analogue (GnRH-a) therapy may be used to shrink fibroids before surgery. It can also help with symptoms. This treatment is used for a limited amount of time because it can weaken the bones.

How can you care for yourself when you have uterine fibroids?

  • If your doctor gave you medicine, take it as exactly as prescribed. Be safe with medicines. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
  • Take anti-inflammatory medicines for pain. These include ibuprofen and naproxen. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
  • Use heat, such as a hot water bottle or a heating pad set on low, or a warm bath to relax tense muscles and relieve cramping. Put a thin cloth between the heating pad and your skin. Never go to sleep with a heating pad on.
  • Lie down and put a pillow under your knees. Or lie on your side and bring your knees up to your chest. These positions may help relieve belly pain or pressure.
  • Keep track of how many sanitary pads or tampons you use each day.
  • Get at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week. Walking is a good choice. You also may want to do other activities, such as running, swimming, cycling, or playing tennis or team sports.
  • If you bleed longer than usual or have heavy bleeding, take a daily multivitamin with iron.

How is surgery used to treat uterine fibroids?

Surgery can be used to remove uterine fibroids only (myomectomy). Or it can be used to remove the entire uterus (hysterectomy).

Surgery is an option when:

  • You still have heavy uterine bleeding or anemia after several months of treatment.
  • Fibroid pain or pressure affects your quality of life.
  • The fibroids cause urinary or bowel problems.
  • There is a chance that you have cancer.
  • Fibroids may be making it hard to get pregnant.

Surgery choices

Options include:

  • Myomectomy. This is surgery to remove the fibroids. If you hope to get pregnant later, myomectomy is your one surgical option.
  • Hysterectomy. This is surgery to remove the uterus. It may be an option if you have no future plans to get pregnant.

What increases your risk for uterine fibroids?

Your risk for uterine fibroids increases as you age, especially from your 30s and 40s through menopause. But after menopause, fibroids usually shrink. Uterine fibroids are also more common in people who have a family history of fibroids, are Black, have high blood pressure, or are obese.

What problems can happen when you have uterine fibroids?

Complications of uterine fibroids aren't common. Some of the problems that may happen are:

  • Anemia from heavy bleeding.
  • Problems with the urinary tract or bowels, if a fibroid presses on them.
  • Infertility, especially if the fibroids grow inside the uterus and change the shape of the uterus.
  • Ongoing low back pain or a feeling of pressure in the lower abdomen (pelvic pressure).
  • Breakdown of uterine fibroid tissue. This can cause pain.

Fibroids may cause problems during pregnancy, such as:

  • Preterm labor and delivery.
  • Pain during the second and third trimesters.
  • An abnormal fetal position, such as breech position, at birth.
  • Placenta problems.

What causes uterine fibroids?

Doctors aren't sure what causes fibroids. But the hormones estrogen and progesterone seem to make them grow. Your body makes the highest levels of these hormones during the years you have periods.

Uterine fibroids: Fast facts

Relieving menstrual pain from uterine fibroids

Try one or more of these tips to help relieve your menstrual pain.

  • Ask your doctor if you can take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

    NSAIDs help relieve menstrual cramps and pain. Examples include ibuprofen and naproxen.

  • Put heat on your lower belly.

    Use a heating pad or hot water bottle, or take a warm bath. Heat improves blood flow and may ease pelvic pain.

  • Elevate your legs.

    Lie down and prop up your legs by putting a pillow under your knees. This may help relieve pain.

  • Lie on your side, and bring your knees up to your chest.

    This will help relieve back pressure.

  • Get exercise.

    Exercise improves blood flow and may reduce pain.

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