Endometriosis is the development of uterine-lining tissue outside the uterus. Symptoms include abdominal pain, heavy periods, and infertility. Treatments include pain relievers, birth control pills, and surgery.

Slideshow: A Visual Guide to Endometriosis

What is Endometriosis?
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Endometriosis occurs when tissue normally found inside the uterus grows in other parts of the body. It may attach to the ovaries, fallopian tubes, the exterior of the uterus, the bowel, or other internal structures. As hormones change during the menstrual cycle, this tissue breaks down and may cause painful adhesions, or scar tissue. More than 5.5 million American women have symptoms of endometriosis.

Endometriosis Symptoms

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Pain just before, during, or after menstruation is the most common symptom of endometriosis. For some women, this pain may be disabling and may occur during or after sex, or during bowel movements or urination. It sometimes causes chronic pain in the pelvis and lower back. However, many women with endometriosis have mild or no symptoms. The symptoms may be related to the location of the growths.

Just Cramps or Endometriosis?

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Most women have some mild pain with their menstrual periods. They may get relief from over-the-counter pain medications. If your pain lasts more than two days, keeps you from doing normal activities, or remains after your period is over, you should consult your doctor. Endometriosis also may cause pain in the lower back.

Endometriosis and Teens

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Endometriosis pain can begin with the first menstrual period. If your menstrual pain is strong enough to interfere with activities, you should consult your physician. The first step may be tracking the symptoms and taking pain medication, but ultimately the treatment options for teens are the same as for adults.

Endometriosis and Infertility

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Sometimes the first -- or only -- sign of endometriosis is trouble getting pregnant. Infertility affects about a third of women with the condition, for reasons that are not yet well understood. Scarring may be to blame. The good news is that medical treatments are effective to overcome infertility -- and pregnancy itself can relieve some symptoms of endometriosis.

Endometriosis or Fibroids?
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Endometriosis is one cause of severe menstrual pain. But the pain can be caused by another condition, such as fibroids, which are noncancerous growths of the muscle tissue of the uterus. Fibroids can cause severe cramps and heavier bleeding during your period. The pain of endometriosis or fibroids can also occur at other times of the month.

What Causes Endometriosis?

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Doctors don't know why endometrial tissue grows outside of the uterus, but there are several theories. Heredity plays a role, and some endometrial cells may be present from birth. The cells also might migrate to the pelvic area during menstruation, through the bloodstream, or during surgery such as caesarian delivery. A faulty immune system may fail to eliminate the misplaced cells.

The brown cells seen here are endometrial cells removed from an abnormal growth on an ovary.

Endometriosis: Who Is at Risk?
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Endometriosis is more common in women who:
  • Are in their 30s and 40s
  • Have not had children
  • Have periods longer than 7 days
  • Have cycles shorter than 28 days
  • Started their period before age 12
  • Have a mother or sister who had endometriosis
Diagnosis: Tracking Symptoms
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Your pattern of symptoms can help to identify endometriosis, including:
  • When the pain occurs
  • How bad it is
  • How long it lasts
  • A change or worsening of pain
  • Pain that limits your activities
  • Pain during intercourse, bowel movements, or urination
Diagnosis: Pelvic Exam
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Your doctor will perform a pelvic exam to check the ovaries, uterus, and cervix for anything unusual. An exam can sometimes reveal an ovarian cyst or internal scarring that may be due to endometriosis. The doctor also looks for other pelvic conditions that could cause symptoms similar to endometriosis.

Diagnosis: Pelvic Scans

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Although it isn't possible to confirm endometriosis with scanning techniques alone, your doctor may order an ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI to help with diagnosis. These may be able to detect larger endometrial growths or cysts. The scans use sound waves, X-rays, or magnetic fields with radiofrequency pulses to create the images.

Diagnosis: Laparoscopy
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Laparoscopy is the only sure way to determine if you have endometriosis. A surgeon inflates the abdomen with gas through a small incision in the navel. A laparoscope is a viewing instrument that's inserted through the incision. The surgeon can take small pieces of tissue for examination in a lab -- called a biopsy -- to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment: Pain Medicine
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Pain medications such as acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen often help relieve the pain and cramping that comes with endometriosis. However, these medicines only treat the symptoms and not the underlying endometriosis.

Treatment: Birth Control Pills
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Oral contraceptives manage your levels of estrogen and progestin, which make your menstrual periods shorter and lighter. That often reduces the pain of endometriosis. Your doctor may prescribe pills to be taken continuously, with no breaks for a menstrual period, or progestin-only therapy. Progestin-only therapy can also be given by injection. Endometriosis symptoms may return after you stop taking the pills.

Treatment: Other Hormone Therapies

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These drugs mimic menopause, eliminating periods along with endometriosis symptoms. GnRH agonists, such as Lupron, Synarel, and Zoladex, block production of female hormones. They can cause hot flashes, vaginal dryness, fatigue, mood changes, and bone loss. Danocrine works by lowering estrogen. It also has some weak androgen (male hormone) activity. Side effects can include weight gain, smaller breasts, acne, facial hair, voice and mood changes, and birth defects.

Treatment: Excision
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During a laparoscopy, the surgeon may remove visible endometrial growths or adhesions. Most women have immediate pain relief. However, a year after the surgery, about 45% of women will have a recurrence of symptoms. The likelihood of recurrence increases over time. Hormone therapy after surgery may improve the outcome.

Treatment: Open Surgery

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Severe cases of endometriosis may require laparotomy, or open abdominal surgery, to remove growths, or even a hysterectomy -- removal of the uterus and possibly all or part of the ovaries. Although this treatment has a high success rate, endometriosis still recurs for about 15% of women who had their uterus and ovaries removed.

Getting Pregnant With Endometriosis
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Many women with endometriosis don't have trouble getting pregnant. But laparoscopic surgery can significantly improve the pregnancy rate of women who have moderate to severe endometriosis. In vitro fertilization is an option if infertility persists. The sperm and egg are combined in a laboratory and the resulting embryo is implanted into the uterus.

Coping With Endometriosis
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Although there is no way to prevent endometriosis, you can make lifestyle choices that will help you feel better. Regular exercise may help reduce pain by improving your blood flow and producing endorphins, the body's natural pain relievers. Acupuncture, yoga, massage, and meditation also may be helpful in easing symptoms.

An End to Endometriosis?

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For most women, endometriosis recedes with menopause. Some women find relief from endometriosis during pregnancy. In some cases, endometriosis symptoms may simply go away. About one-third of women with mild endometriosis will find that their symptoms resolve on their own.