Uterine fibroids are noncancerous (benign) tumors that develop in the womb (uterus), a female reproductive organ. Uterine fibroids are common. As many as 1 in 5 women may have fibroids during their childbearing years (the time after starting menstruation for the first time and before menopause). Half of all women have fibroids by age 50. Fibroids are rare in women under age 20. They are more common in African-Americans than Caucasians.
The cause of uterine fibroids is unknown. However, their growth has been linked to the hormone estrogen. As long as a woman with fibroids is menstruating, a fibroid will probably continue to grow, usually slowly. Fibroids can be so tiny that you need a microscope to see them. However, they can grow very large. They may fill the entire uterus, and may weigh several pounds. Although it is possible for just one fibroid to develop, usually there are more than one. Fibroids are often described by their location in the uterus:
- Myometrial -- in the muscle wall of the uterus
- Submucosal -- just under the surface of the uterine lining
- Subserosal -- just under the outside covering of the uterus
- Pendunculated -- occurring on a long stalk on the outside of the uterus or inside the cavity of the uterus
More common symptoms of uterine fibroids are:
- Bleeding between periods
- Heavy menstrual bleeding (menorrhagia), sometimes with the passage of blood clots
- Menstrual periods that may last longer than normal
- Need to urinate more often
- Pelvic cramping or pain with periods
- Sensation of fullness or pressure in lower abdomen
- Pain during intercourse
Note: There are often no symptoms. Your health care provider may find them during a physical exam or other test. Fibroids often shrink and cause no symptoms in women who have gone through menopause.
Signs and tests
The health care provider will perform a pelvic exam. This may show that you have a change in the shape of your womb (uterus). It can be difficult to diagnose fibroids, especially if you are extremely overweight. An ultrasound may be done to confirm the diagnosis of fibroids. Sometimes, a pelvic MRI is done. An endometrial biopsy (biopsy of the uterine lining) or laparoscopy may be needed to rule out cancer.
Treatment depends on several things, including:
- Your age
- General health
- Severity of symptoms
- Type of fibroids
- Whether you are pregnant
- If you want children in the future
Some women may just need pelvic exams or ultrasounds every once in a while to monitor the fibroid's growth. Treatment for the symptoms of fibroids may include:
- Birth control pills (oral contraceptives) to help control heavy periods
- Intrauterine devices (IUDs) that release the hormone progestin to help reduce heavy bleeding and pain
- Iron supplements to prevent or treat anemia due to heavy periods
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or naprosyn for cramps or pain
- Short-term hormonal therapy injections to help shrink the fibroids
Surgery and procedures used to treat fibroids include:
- Hysteroscopic resection of fibroids: Women who have fibroids growing inside the uterine cavity may need this outpatient procedure to remove the fibroid tumors.
- Uterine artery embolization: This procedure stops the blood supply to the fibroid, causing it to die and shrink. Women who may want to become pregnant in the future should discuss this procedure with their health care provider.
- Myomectomy: This surgery removes the fibroids. It is often the chosen treatment for women who want to have children, because it usually can preserve fertility. More fibroids can develop after a myomectomy.
- Hysterectomy: This invasive surgery may be an option if medicines do not work and other surgeries and procedures are not an option.