Uterine fibroids are very common non-cancerous (benign) growths that develop in the muscular wall of the uterus. They can range in size from very tiny (a quarter of an inch) to larger than a cantaloupe. Occasionally, they can cause the uterus to grow to the size of a five-month pregnancy. In most cases, there is more than one fibroid in the uterus. While fibroids do not always cause symptoms, their size and location can lead to problems for some women, including pain and heavy bleeding.
Fibroids can dramatically increase in size during pregnancy. This is thought to occur because of the increase in estrogen levels during pregnancy. After pregnancy, the fibroids usually shrink back to their pre-pregnancy size. They typically improve after menopause when the level of estrogen, the female hormone that circulates in the blood, decreases dramatically. However, menopausal women who are taking supplemental estrogen (hormone replacement therapy) may not experience relief of symptoms.
Uterine fibroids are the most common tumors of the female genital tract. You might hear them referred to as “fibroids” or by several other names, including leiomyoma, leiomyomata, myoma and fibromyoma. Fibroid tumors of the uterus are very common, but for most women, they either do not cause symptoms or cause only minor symptoms.
These develop under the outside covering of the uterus and expand outward through the wall, giving the uterus a knobby appearance. They typically do not affect a woman’s menstrual flow, but can cause pelvic pain, back pain and generalized pressure. The subserosal fibroid can develop a stalk or stem-like base, making it difficult to distinguish from an ovarian mass. These are called pedunculated. The correct diagnosis can be made with either an ultrasound or magnetic resonance (MR) exam.
These develop within the lining of the uterus and expand inward, increasing the size of the uterus, and making it feel larger than normal in a gynecologic internal exam. These are the most common fibroids. Intramural fibroids can result in heavier menstrual bleeding and pelvic pain, back pain or the generalized pressure that many women experience.
These are just under the lining of the uterus. These are the least common fibroids, but they tend to cause the most problems. Even a very small submucosal fibroid can cause heavy bleeding – gushing, very heavy and prolonged periods.
Prevalence of Uterine Fibroids
Twenty to 40 percent of women age 35 and older have uterine fibroids of a significant size. Uterine fibroids are the most frequent indication for hysterectomy in premenopausal women and, therefore, are a major public health issue.
Uterine Fibroid Symptoms
Most fibroids don’t cause symptoms—only 10 to 20 percent of women who have fibroids require treatment. Depending on size, location and number of fibroids, they may cause:
- Heavy, prolonged menstrual periods and unusual monthly bleeding, sometimes with clots; this can lead to anemia
- Pelvic pain and pressure
- Pain in the back and legs
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Bladder pressure leading to a frequent urge to urinate
- Pressure on the bowel, leading to constipation and bloating
- Abnormally enlarged abdomen
How do I know for sure that I have fibroids?
Your doctor may find that you have fibroids when you see her or him for a regular pelvic exam to check your uterus, ovaries, and vagina. The doctor can feel the fibroid with her or his fingers during an ordinary pelvic exam, as a (usually painless) lump or mass on the uterus. Often, a doctor will describe how small or how large the fibroids are by comparing their size to the size your uterus would be if you were pregnant. For example, you may be told that your fibroids have made your uterus the size it would be if you were 16 weeks pregnant. Or the fibroid might be compared to fruits, nuts, or a ball, such as a grape or an orange, an acorn or a walnut, or a golf ball or a volleyball.
Your doctor can do imaging tests to confirm that you have fibroids. These are tests that create a “picture” of the inside of your body without surgery. These tests might include:
- Ultrasound – Uses sound waves to produce the picture. The ultrasound probe can be placed on the abdomen or it can be placed inside the vagina to make the picture.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – Uses magnets and radio waves to produce the picture
- X-rays – Uses a form of radiation to see into the body and produce the picture
- Cat scan (CT) – Takes many X-ray pictures of the body from different angles for a more complete image
- Hysterosalpingogram (hiss-tur-oh-sal-PIN-juh-gram) (HSG) or sonohysterogram (soh-noh-HISS-tur-oh-gram) – An HSG involves injecting x-ray dye into the uterus and taking x-ray pictures. A sonohysterogram involves injecting water into the uterus and making ultrasound pictures.
You might also need surgery to know for sure if you have fibroids. There are two types of surgery to do this:
- Laparoscopy (lap-ar-OSS-koh-pee) – The doctor inserts a long, thin scope into a tiny incision made in or near the navel. The scope has a bright light and a camera. This allows the doctor to view the uterus and other organs on a monitor during the procedure. Pictures also can be made.
- Hysteroscopy (hiss-tur-OSS-koh-pee) – The doctor passes a long, thin scope with a light through the vagina and cervix into the uterus. No incision is needed. The doctor can look inside the uterus for fibroids and other problems, such as polyps. A camera also can be used with the scope.
What questions should I ask my doctor if I have fibroids?
- How many fibroids do I have?
- What size is my fibroid(s)?
- Where is my fibroid(s) located (outer surface, inner surface, or in the wall of the uterus)?
- Can I expect the fibroid(s) to grow larger?
- How rapidly have they grown (if they were known about already)?
- How will I know if the fibroid(s) is growing larger?
- What problems can the fibroid(s) cause?
- What tests or imaging studies are best for keeping track of the growth of my fibroids?
- What are my treatment options if my fibroid(s) becomes a problem?
- What are your views on treating fibroids with a hysterectomy versus other types of treatments?
A second opinion is always a good idea if your doctor has not answered your questions completely or does not seem to be meeting your needs.
How are fibroids treated?
Most women with fibroids do not have any symptoms. For women who do have symptoms, there are treatments that can help. Talk with your doctor about the best way to treat your fibroids. She or he will consider many things before helping you choose a treatment. Some of these things include:
- Whether or not you are having symptoms from the fibroids
- If you might want to become pregnant in the future
- The size of the fibroids
- The location of the fibroids
- Your age and how close to menopause you might be
If you have fibroids but do not have any symptoms, you may not need treatment. Your doctor will check during your regular exams to see if they have grown.
If you have fibroids and have mild symptoms, your doctor may suggest taking medication. Over-the-counter drugs such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen can be used for mild pain. If you have heavy bleeding during your period, taking an iron supplement can keep you from getting anemia or correct it if you already are anemic.
Several drugs commonly used for birth control can be prescribed to help control symptoms of fibroids. Low-dose birth control pills do not make fibroids grow and can help control heavy bleeding. The same is true of progesterone-like injections (e.g., Depo-Provera®). An IUD (intrauterine device) called Mirena® contains a small amount of progesterone-like medication, which can be used to control heavy bleeding as well as for birth control.
Other drugs used to treat fibroids are “gonadotropin releasing hormone agonists” (GnRHa). The one most commonly used is Lupron®. These drugs, given by injection, nasal spray, or implanted, can shrink your fibroids. Sometimes they are used before surgery to make fibroids easier to remove. Side effects of GnRHas can include hot flashes, depression, not being able to sleep, decreased sex drive, and joint pain. Most women tolerate GnRHas quite well. Most women do not get a period when taking GnRHas. This can be a big relief to women who have heavy bleeding. It also allows women with anemia to recover to a normal blood count. GnRHas can cause bone thinning, so their use is generally limited to six months or less. These drugs also are very expensive, and some insurance companies will cover only some or none of the cost. GnRHas offer temporary relief from the symptoms of fibroids; once you stop taking the drugs, the fibroids often grow back quickly.
If you have fibroids with moderate or severe symptoms, surgery may be the best way to treat them. Here are the options:
- Myomectomy (meye-oh-MEK-tuh-mee) – Surgery to remove fibroids without taking out the healthy tissue of the uterus. It is best for women who wish to have children after treatment for their fibroids or who wish to keep their uterus for other reasons. You can become pregnant after myomectomy. But if your fibroids were imbedded deeply in the uterus, you might need a cesarean section to deliver. Myomectomy can be performed in many ways. It can be major surgery (involving cutting into the abdomen) or performed with laparoscopy or hysteroscopy. The type of surgery that can be done depends on the type, size, and location of the fibroids. After myomectomy new fibroids can grow and cause trouble later. All of the possible risks of surgery are true for myomectomy. The risks depend on how extensive the surgery is.
- Hysterectomy (hiss-tur-EK-tuh-mee) – Surgery to remove the uterus. This surgery is the only sure way to cure uterine fibroids. Fibroids are the most common reason that hysterectomy is performed. This surgery is used when a woman’s fibroids are large, if she has heavy bleeding, is either near or past menopause, or does not want children. If the fibroids are large, a woman may need a hysterectomy that involves cutting into the abdomen to remove the uterus. If the fibroids are smaller, the doctor may be able to reach the uterus through the vagina, instead of making a cut in the abdomen. In some cases hysterectomy can be performed through the laparoscope. Removal of the ovaries and the cervix at the time of hysterectomy is usually optional. Women whose ovaries are not removed do not go into menopause at the time of hysterectomy. Hysterectomy is a major surgery. Although hysterectomy is usually quite safe, it does carry a significant risk of complications. Recovery from hysterectomy usually takes several weeks.
- Endometrial Ablation (en-doh-MEE-tree-uhl uh-BLAY-shuhn) – The lining of the uterus is removed or destroyed to control very heavy bleeding. This can be done with laser, wire loops, boiling water, electric current, microwaves, freezing, and other methods. This procedure usually is considered minor surgery. It can be done on an outpatient basis or even in a doctor’s office. Complications can occur, but are uncommon with most of the methods. Most people recover quickly. About half of women who have this procedure have no more menstrual bleeding. About three in 10 women have much lighter bleeding. But, a woman cannot have children after this surgery.
- Myolysis (meye-OL-uh-siss) – A needle is inserted into the fibroids, usually guided by laparoscopy, and electric current or freezing is used to destroy the fibroids.
Nonsurgical Uterine Fibroid Embolization – A Major Advance in Women’s Health
Uterine fibroid embolization (UFE), also known as uterine artery embolization, is performed by an interventional radiologist, a physician who is trained to perform this and other types of embolization and minimally invasive procedures. It is performed while the patient is conscious, but sedated and feeling no pain. It does not require general anesthesia.
The interventional radiologist makes a tiny nick in the skin in the groin and inserts a catheter into the femoral artery. Using real-time imaging, the physician guides the catheter through the artery and then releases tiny particles, the size of grains of sand, into the uterine arteries that supply blood to the fibroid tumor. This blocks the blood flow to the fibroid tumor and causes it to shrink and die.
UFE Recovery Time
Fibroid embolization usually requires a hospital stay of one night. Pain-killing medications and drugs that control swelling typically are prescribed following the procedure to treat cramping and pain. Many women resume light activities in a few days and the majority of women are able to return to normal activities within seven to 10 days.
- On average, 85-90 percent of women who have had the procedure experience significant or total relief of heavy bleeding, pain and/or bulk-related symptoms.
- The procedure is effective for multiple fibroids and large fibroids.
- Recurrence of treated fibroids is very rare. Short and mid-term data show UFE to be very effective with a very low rate of recurrence. Long-term (10-year) data are not yet available, but in one study in which patients were followed for six years, no fibroid that had been embolized regrew.
Effect on Fertility
There have been numerous reports of pregnancies following uterine fibroid embolization, however prospective studies are needed to determine the effects of UFE on the ability of a woman to have children. One study comparing the fertility of women who had UFE with those who had myomectomy showed similar numbers of successful pregnancies. However, this study has not yet been confirmed by other investigators.
Less than two percent of patients have entered menopause as a result of UFE. This is more likely to occur if the woman is in her mid-forties or older and is already nearing menopause.
UFE is a very safe method and, like other minimally invasive procedures, has significant advantages over conventional open surgery. However, there are some associated risks, as there are with any medical procedure. A small number of patients have experienced infection, which usually can be controlled by antibiotics. There also is a less than one percent chance of injury to the uterus, potentially leading to a hysterectomy. These complication rates are lower than those of hysterectomy and myomectomy.
Magnetic Resonance Guided Focused Ultrasound
Magnetic resonance guided focused ultrasound (MRGFU) is a non-invasive outpatient, procedure that uses high intensity focused ultrasound waves to ablate (destroy) the fibroid tissue. During the procedure, an interventional radiologist uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to see inside the body to deliver the treatment directly to the fibroid. The procedure is FDA approved for treating uterine fibroids, but is under investigation for the treatment of breast, prostate, brain and bone cancer.
MRI scans identify the tissue in the body to treat and are used to plan each patient’s procedure. MRI’s provide a three-dimensional view of the targeted tissue, allowing for precise focusing and delivery of the ultrasound energy. MRI also enables the physician to monitor tissue temperature in real-time to ensure adequate but safe heating of the target. Immediate imaging of the treated area following MRGFU helps the physician determine if the treatment was successful.
The ultrasound energy used in MRGFU can pass through skin, muscle, fat and other soft tissues. High-intensity ultrasound energy that is directed to the fibroid heats up the tissue and destroys it. This method of tissue destruction is called thermal ablation.