"Unfortunately for many Australian women, endometriosis means pain, heavy periods and, for those in their reproductive years, infertility, which makes it a particularly debilitating disease. Because of the difficulty in diagnosing endometriosis, damage from the disease can be significant.
Many women consider lower abdominal or pelvic pain to be an unwelcome but ‘normal’ part of their menstrual cycle. This may mean they don’t seek help for their symptoms for many years. By speaking to your doctor, you and your doctor may be able to treat and manage the condition to reduce the impact period pain and endometriosis may have on your quality of life."
Dr Christine Bennett
Chair, Medical Advisory Panel, Bupa Australia.
The lining of a woman's uterus (womb) is called the endometrium. Each month the endometrium thickens under hormonal influence and then sheds during the monthly bleed (period). For reasons we don't yet understand, sometimes endometrial tissue grows outside the uterus—most commonly on the ovaries, fallopian tubes or inside the pelvis in an area between the uterus and the rectum. It may also grow on the bowel, bladder or elsewhere. This condition is known as endometriosis.1
Because this tissue follows the same hormonal cycle as it would inside the uterus, it bleeds during the period but this blood has nowhere to go. Consequently, small collections of blood develop inside the pelvis or elsewhere and may cause irritation. The irritation can lead to inflammation. This can, in turn, lead to the formation of tight bands of scarring called adhesions.1
The causes of endometriosis are not well understood but theories include a genetic link, an immune system dysfunction or excessive menstrual blood flowing in through the fallopian tubes instead of out through the vagina.2
If you have endometriosis you may experience one or more of the following symptoms:1, 3
Often, women consider the lower abdominal or pelvic pain of endometriosis to be an unwelcome but normal part of their menstrual cycle. This may mean they don’t seek help for their symptoms for many years. To find out whether your period pain may be a symptom that requires intervention, speak with your doctor. If your doctor suspects you have endometriosis, they may initially offer simple treatments such as anti-inflammatory medication or hormone therapy such as the contraceptive pill. If these treatments are ineffective, they may refer you to a specialist gynaecologist with an interest in endometriosis.
Women with endometriosis may find that in the long-term the condition interferes with their productivity and ability to enjoy life. Recurrent monthly pain can cause inconvenience and discomfort due to days off work or study and the need for strong painkillers. If left undiagnosed, endometriosis can have more serious effects such as impacting a woman’s fertility.
Watch a video on how endometriosis affects a woman's fertility, common symptoms, and how it can be treated to help achieve a pregnancy.
Endometriosis affects about 10 percent of all women of reproductive age.2 If a family member has endometriosis, you may be at increased risk of developing the condition. Some other suspected risk factors include early onset of puberty, heavy or painful periods, short menstrual cycles (less than 27 days) and/or a lengthy period (more than seven days), allergies and obesity.
Endometriosis can occur at any age between puberty and menopause. It should be considered as a possible diagnosis in women who are unable to get adequate relief from standard period pain treatments.
There is no simple diagnostic test for endometriosis and delays in diagnosis are common. Without an invasive test, it can prove difficult to distinguish endometriosis from common hormone-based menstrual discomfort. Your doctor may suspect the condition if you complain of pelvic pain, including painful periods or painful sex, particularly when the pain isn’t relieved by standard painkillers.
Your doctor may perform abdominal and internal pelvic examinations. Although sometimes an ultrasound examination may suggest endometriosis, the only definitive way to diagnose the condition is by direct observation with laparoscopy. Laparoscopy is a surgical procedure under anaesthesia where a telescope-like instrument attached to a camera lens is inserted into the abdomen to view the pelvic organs.1,3
If your doctor diagnoses you with endometriosis, they’re likely to recommend one of the following treatment options, depending on your individual circumstances:
In addition to your medical treatment, you might like to consider complementary therapies such as massage, acupuncture and dietary changes to help you cope with the emotional strain of endometriosis.2
The Jean Hailes Foundation: Endometriosis
Endometriosis Association (Queensland)www.qendo.org.au
Last published: 30 July 2011
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.
Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.