Fibroids are common benign growths that can develop in and outside of the uterus, as well as in the uterine wall. They are also referred to as fibroid tumours, myomas, and leiomyomas. Despite the fact that fibroids are sometimes referred to as tumours, they are not malignant or a form of cancer. In fact, many individuals who have fibroids never experience health issues as a result of their presence.
Signs of fibroid growth
The symptoms of fibroid growth are myriad, some people will have fibroids without ever being aware of their existence. Fibroids can become problematic when they grow in such a way that they press up against or obstruct reproductive and surrounding organs. The following symptoms are associated with fibroids:
- Having to pee frequently
- Low back pain
- A constant sensation of feeling full
- Heavy periods that last longer than usual
- Pain during sex
How are fibroids diagnosed?
Fibroids are most often discovered during routine pelvic exams. The doctor will insert their fingers into the vaginal canal and gently press upwards while simultaneously pressing onto the abdomen while feeling for small lumps or growths. When a small fibroid is detected, the doctor will often ask the individual to self-monitor for signs of fibroid growth. This growth (or lack of) is then reassessed during the next pelvic exam. If there are any concerns about the presence of fibroids they can be monitored via ultrasound. If there is suspicion of a nutrient deficiency, such as vitamin D or iron, a requisition for a blood test may be administered.
What causes fibroids?
There is no one direct cause of fibroids. Instead, they appear to be a result of several different factors. Current research suggests that there is a correlation between fibroids and estrogen or progesterone levels, although the exact mechanism behind this theory is unknown. Other potential causes include:
- Growth hormones
- Stress (including past trauma and childhood abuse)
- Vitamin D deficiency (shown in animal studies)
- High blood pressure
How common are fibroids?
An estimated 30 percent of people will have developed fibroids by the age of 35 and close to 80 percent will experience fibroid growth by the age of 50. A study published in Women’s Health Issues followed 373 white women and 556 black women, concluding that black women were far more likely to develop fibroids earlier in life and with greater frequency. The study specifically looked at the effects of stressful major life events on fibroid growth. This is not an insignificant finding. The study also revealed that the black women who participated were less likely to have a college education, hold a management position, and make more than $40,000 annually. The white participants were more likely to have the exact inverse of these findings. The correlation between stress, lack of resources, and fibroids also highlights the lack of quality, thoughtful reproductive medical care that is still currently and historically unavailable to many black individuals.
Because they are benign, there is often no reason to treat fibroids. However, because fibroids can have unwanted effects on the reproductive and digestive system there are several different routes that can be taken if they become disruptive.
Because fibroids can be symptomatic of an iron or vitamin D deficiency, some doctors may suggest taking a supplement and increasing consumption of dark leafy greens, red meat, and other iron-rich foods.
For people who experience heavy periods, period pain, and lower back aches over the counter pain medication such as ibuprofen may be suggested. Hormonal birth control is also an option and can result in lighter, less painful periods for some, but not all, individuals.
Uterine fibroid embolization is an invasive surgical procedure that cuts off the supply of blood to fibroids with the aim of shrinking or killing the growth altogether. Uterine fibroid embolization will not directly cause infertility but may lead to early menopause so it is not recommended for individuals who are trying to conceive.
If fibroids are causing fertility issues or excessive discomfort a surgery called a myomectomy can be performed. This procedure removes the fibroid from the uterus with the intention of preserving the reproductive organs. In some cases, a complete or partial hysterectomy is recommended for large or physically disruptive fibroids.