A lot of people get cramps during their period. Some of us can pop in a couple of pain killers and be fine. Others just moan and keep a hot water bottle placed securely along their lower abdomen. Ice cream and Netflix might be the cure for a few. While we can all admit that cramps suck and can be bad enough to keep us home from school or work every now and then, some experience menstrual cramps in an entirely different way.
When cramps are so bad that traditional pain killers don’t work and you feel like you’re being stabbed in the abdomen for hours on end, those aren’t normal cramps. Those cramps might be a sign of endometriosis.
If you’re wondering what the hell endometriosis is, hang on and read on.
Okay, so what’s endometriosis?
Endometriosis is a disease in which tissue that is supposed to grow inside of the uterus grows outside of it instead. See, it sounds super technical and confusing but it’s pretty straight forward. This overgrowth usually happens outside of the uterus, along the ovaries and fallopian tubes.
So you know how the tissues in your uterus thickens, breaks down and bleeds, causing your period? Yeah, the same thing happens to those tissues even when they grow outside of your uterus, but they have no way to escape like the uterine tissues do through your vagina; they’re trapped. This can cause swelling, irritation and the development of internal scar tissue, the latter of which can adhere to organs and other tissues. If the endometrial tissue grows along your ovaries, cysts can form, too. Eugh, sort of gross to think about, right? As you can see, endometriosis ain’t a joke.
What are some symptoms? Are there any other nasty side effects besides having awful pain every month?
There are a few common endometriosis symptoms:
- Painful menstrual cramps — Not the ones that subside after a couple hundred milligrams of ibuprofen. These cramps are severe and potentially debilitating. Intense lower back pain is common, too. This condition is usually known as dysmenorrhea.
- Chronic pelvic pain — Whether you’re on your period or not, you feel consistent pain, heaviness and aches in your pelvic region.
- Painful intercourse — Could occur during or after
- Painful urination and/or bowel movements — Additionally, one can experience a constant urge or sensation to urinate; this could occur due to adhesion of the endometrial tissue along the bladder or bowels.
- Infertility — Many people only find out that they have endometriosis when they try to become pregnant. Thirty to 50 percent of those who suffer from endometriosis are infertile.
Other symptoms include general bowel issues like diarrhea or constipation, fatigue, nausea, headache, pain while exercising and other general discomfort.
It’s also important to know that 25 percent of people with endometriosis don’t even experience any symptoms!
What even causes endometriosis? Is it just bad luck?
Kind of. Scientists are unsure of an exact cause but there is one explanation that they’re pretty sure about: Retrograde menstruation. You’re probably like, “Uh, what the hell is that?” Well, here’s the quick and dirty: When one experiences retrograde menstruation, some of their menstrual blood flows back into the fallopian tubes as opposed to out of the body. This blood contains endometrial cells, which collect and attach to surfaces outside of the uterus. Then, wham bam thank you ma’am, you’ve got a case of endometriosis.
Other causes may include immune system disorders or complications from a pelvic surgery (like a C-section or a hysterectomy).
By the way, as with almost everything else, genetics can play a role. That means that if your mom had endometriosis, you have a higher chance of developing it, too. Ugh, thanks for nothin’, mom!
So how common is it? Can you get it as a teenager?
Endometriosis is very common; there are at least three million reported cases of it a year! And yes, you can absolutely have endometriosis as a teen. Unfortunately, many teens who suffer from endometriosis aren’t diagnosed until over a decade after they first showed signs of the disease.
Uh, wait…why? Why is it so under diagnosed?
So here’s the infuriating part, the part that inspired me to write about this in the first place. According to the New York Times, many teens have endometriosis but don’t find out until years later because their symptoms aren’t taken seriously by doctors. So here’s how it goes: Person asks their parent to take them to the doctor because OMG they legit cannot function during their period, their cramps are that bad. Doctor, instead of issuing an invasive exam, assumes that this teen is just overreacting. Teen’s symptoms are ignored. Fast forward to 15 years later when this person decides they want to have a baby and is having issues. A thorough exam of the uterus is issued and the worst thing happens: This person is not only diagnosed with endometriosis, they’re told that the damage is so severe that they will be unable to have a baby.
Wow…if only this person was diagnosed 15 years earlier, then they could have gone through some treatment options. But too little, too late.
How effed up is that? The problem is that endometriosis has traditionally been seen as a disease that afflicts people during their “child bearing years.” Well, obviously if one is experiencing awful cramps, chronic pelvic pain and painful urination for years on end, this is a problem that should be treated seriously whether one is ready to have a baby or not. Plus, uh, hello! The reason why teens menstruate is because their body is technically ready and able to have a baby. So it shouldn’t even matter if someone wants to pop out a kid or not!
There is an idea–a very gendered one–that girls and women over exaggerate and can’t handle a little bit of pain thrown at them. Maybe if doctors, parents, etc stopped seeing their kids as drama queens and actually took their pain seriously, then maybe more people would be diagnosed in their teens and early 20s, not their 30s! Okay, rant over.
I think I have endometriosis but my parents/doctors think I’m just exaggerating. What should I do?
Do what you have to do to demand a thorough exam. Ask about getting a pelvic exam or an ultrasound. A procedure called Laparoscopy is used to confirm whether or not someone has endometriosis; a laparoscope–a thin instrument used to view your insides–is inserted in a small incision near your bell button and your doc will look for and collect samples of endometrial tissues located outside of your uterus. I know, it sounds like a lot, but if you’re serious about this then it doesn’t hurt to see what can be done. Better safe than sorry!
Is there any way to treat it?
There are a few different ways that endometriosis is treated:
- Pain meds — Doctors will urge suffers of endometriosis to depend on pain relievers before moving onto surgical options. These meds won’t get rid of the displaced endometrial tissue, but it’ll alleviate the pain.
- Hormone therapy — Birth control pills, vaginal rings, and patches can help prevent the growth of endometrial tissues every month, leading to lighter periods and lighter endometriosis symptoms. Other options include injection of Depo-Provera or taking Danazol; both drugs, a drug that stops menstruation
- “Conservative” Surgery — This isn’t about politics! During conservative surgery, removal of endometriosis cells preserve the uterus and ovaries in case the endometriosis. This is an option for those who wish to have children someday. The endometriosis might still return, however.
- Hysterectomy — This is the complete removal of the uterus, cervix and sometimes the ovaries as well. This is a last resort for some or a no brainer for those who have no interest in giving birth.
All in all, if you have any signs of endometriosis, please get a professional opinion. Don’t suffer in silence or assume that your cramps are just as bad as everyone else’s. Go to the doctor, see what’s up, and see what you can do!
Do you have endometriosis? Do you suspect that you might have it? Tell us in the comments!