What are fibroids, and are they a concern?
February 21 2021 | Written by Rhea Kumar (She/Her)
Note: Any gendered language is solely used to remain consistent with scientific language found in research.
WHAT ARE FIBROIDS
Fibroids are muscular tumors that grow in the wall of the uterus (womb). They most often appear during childbearing years. As far as the size of a fibroid goes, it can range from the size of a seed to the size of a melon. Females can have a single fibroid, or multiple.
Below you can see the various areas on the uterus where fibroids can be found.
Thankfully, uterine fibroids aren't associated with an increased risk of uterine cancer and very rarely develop into cancer despite being a tumor growth. According to the Cleveland Clinic, one out of 350 women with fibroids will develop malignancy.
As far as symptoms go, most will probably never experience symptoms and fibroids may often go undetected. Your doctor may discover fibroids incidentally during a pelvic exam or prenatal ultrasound.
In those that do experience symptoms, the symptoms can be influenced by the location, size and number of fibroids in your body. If you find yourself in this group, here are some symptoms you might notice.
- Heavy menstrual bleeding
- Menstrual periods lasting more than a week
- Pelvic pressure or pain
- Frequent urination
- Difficulty emptying the bladder
- Backache or leg pains
WHAT MAKES ME SUSCEPTIBLE TO FIBROIDS?
According to Johns Hopkins, these are some factors that could affect one’s susceptibility:
Age: Fibroids become more common as females age, especially during the 30s and 40s through menopause. After menopause, fibroids usually decrease in size.
Family history: Having a family member with fibroids increases your risk of developing them too. If your mother had fibroids, your risk of having them is about three times higher than average.
Ethnic origin: African-American females are more likely to develop fibroids than white females.
Obesity: Women who are overweight are at higher risk for fibroids. For individuals who are obese, the risk is two to three times greater than average.
Eating habits: Eating a lot of red meat (e.g., beef) and ham is linked with a higher risk of fibroids. Eating plenty of green vegetables seems to provide a protective measure to developing fibroids.
HOW CAN MY DOCTOR CHECK FOR FIBROIDS?
Uterine fibroids are frequently found incidentally during a routine pelvic exam. Your doctor may feel irregularities in the shape of your uterus, suggesting the presence of fibroids
If your doctor detects symptoms of fibroids, then they will most likely follow up with an ultrasound, lab tests and in some cases MRIs.
WHY SHOULD WE BE AWARE OF FIBROIDS?
Okay, so, if fibroids are mostly benign and go undetected, what’s the big deal?
Professor Erica Elizabeth Marsh, MD at University of Michigan Health says,
"While fibroids won’t kill you, they can significantly impair a woman’s quality of life … Women should feel empowered to ask questions, to get answers, and to stop suffering in silence."
Fibroids are the leading cause of hysterectomies (the surgical removal of the uterus) in the United States and cost the U.S. billions of dollars in lost work days, treatment, medical complications and of course, surgeries.
WILL FIBROIDS AFFECT PREGNANCY?
“Overall, many women who have fibroids can get pregnant,” says Marsh. “We know, however, that the presence of fibroids can be an obstacle in getting pregnant. In some cases, it’s possible that removal of the fibroid could help women achieve pregnancy.”
It’s important to make sure you know exactly where your fibroid is located, because according to The Mayo Clinic, it's possible that fibroids — especially submucosal fibroids — could cause infertility or pregnancy loss.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR DOCTOR
- How many fibroids do I have?
- What size is (are) my fibroid(s)?
- Where is (are) my fibroid(s) located (outer surface, inner surface, or in the wall of the uterus)?
- Can I expect the fibroid(s) to grow larger?
- How rapidly have they grown (if they were known about already)?
- How will I know if the fibroid(s) is (are) growing larger?
- What problems can the fibroid(s) cause?
- What tests or imaging studies are best for keeping track of the growth of my fibroids?
- What are my treatment options if my fibroid(s) becomes a problem?
- What are your views on treating fibroids with a hysterectomy versus other types of treatments?
While there are several ways to treat fibroids, below you’ll find the two most common:
- Radiofrequency ablation, which uses heat to destroy fibroid tissue without harming surrounding normal uterine tissue. The fibroids remain inside the uterus but shrink in size. Most people go home the same day and can return to normal activities within a few days. However, there is research that suggests that this type of treatment can have an affect on surrounding bone mass.
- Anti-hormonal drugs, which may provide symptom relief without the potential bone-thinning side effects.
Although researchers continue to study the causes of fibroid tumors, little scientific evidence is available on how to prevent them. Preventing uterine fibroids may not be possible, but only a small percentage of these tumors require treatment.
This may be a wakeup call, or just some food for thought, but regardless, it’s also helpful to be mindful of the symptoms of fibroids, especially if you plan on having a kid in the near future. At the doctor, don’t be afraid to ask any questions you have, because you truly never really know.