Jeanette Streater suffered from growing uterine fibroids that caused abnormally heavy menstrual bleeding and a swollen belly that made her feel as if she were pregnant.
“I felt horrible,” she says of her prolonged periods and excessive bleeding. “It got to where I couldn’t go places and I was scared that I would faint while I was driving.”
For many women, uterine fibroids, which are benign growths in and around the womb, cause no problems at all. But for others like Streater, symptoms can be quite severe, says Dr. Brigid Holloran-Schwartz, a SLUCare OB-GYN practicing at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital. Excessive menstrual bleeding or pressure on other organs from an enlarged uterus not only keeps women from enjoying daily life, but can lead to other complications as well, she says.
Good news: a range of treatment options
The good news is that patients have options for treating fibroids, ranging from medication to minimally invasive surgery, Dr. Holloran-Schwartz says. Even when the treatment calls for a hysterectomy, in which a physician removes a woman’s uterus, the procedure is less invasive than it used to be.
“We accomplish 99 percent of these using a minimally invasive approach, using tiny incisions, so the recovery is much easier these days,” she says.
As many as 70 to 80 percent of women will develop uterine fibroids, typically during their childbearing years. The cause of fibroids is not yet understood, but too often women think the symptoms are something they have to live with.
“They just sort of accommodate them,” Dr. Holloran-Schwartz says. “They think: I guess it’s just how I am.”
In Streater’s case, severe symptoms from several large fibroids became intolerable over the course of a couple of years. Having tried other treatments and having already raised her children, she decided to have a hysterectomy.
“It took me a while to make the decision, but after they did the procedure, I realized I should have done this a long time ago,” Streater says.
Many women are surprised to learn that most hysterectomies can be performed using several small incisions, about a half centimeter long, rather than one long incision that leaves a “bikini” scar, Dr. Holloran-Schwartz says.
The result is less discomfort, fewer complications and a shorter recovery, she says. Women typically spend the night in the hospital and go home the next day. They need less pain medication and recover considerably sooner than the six weeks required for a larger surgery.
For women who are still planning to have children, a procedure called a myomectomy may be recommended. Unlike a hysterectomy, a myomectomy removes only the fibroids and leaves the uterus intact.
Shrinking fibroids via the wrist
Some fibroids can be treated with a procedure called uterine fibroid embolization, in which a specialist such as Dr. Keith Pereira, a SLUCare interventional radiologist practicing at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital, inserts a thin catheter into the patient’s wrist to deliver tiny particles to the fibroids, cutting off the blood supply. This causes them to shrink and die over the course of six to eight weeks.
SLUCare interventional radiologists are among the first in the nation to approach fibroids via the wrist, rather than the groin, says Dr. Pereira. At the same time, doctors deliver a powerful nerve block around the uterus. Both of these advancements have led to significant improvements in pain management and recovery time.
“It’s more comfortable for the patient and they can go home sooner,” Dr. Pereira says. “They actually walk out of the hospital after about an hour. Most of the women we see are in their mid-40s and early 50s — they’re busy and they have kids and taking off work is very difficult for them. But downtime with this is really low.”
Don’t suffer in silence
With so many options today, women should not suffer in silence, Dr. Pereira says.
“For many women, fibroids are still considered taboo,” he says. “Because their moms and grandmoms have had this, they think it’s something they just have to deal with.”
But ignoring fibroids can lead to serious complications, such as anemia, doctors say. The best course of action is to see your gynecologist and review your options if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Heavy bleeding during menstrual periods
- Passing clots during menstrual periods
- Fluctuation in the duration and length of your period
- Tightness or pressure in your pelvic area
- Frequent urination day and night
- Lower back pain
- Pain and discomfort during sex
- Abdominal bloating
To learn more about SLUCare’s options for treating uterine fibroids, go to slucare.edu/fibroids.