By Elaine Stillerman
By Elaine Stillerman
The encouraging news about uterine fibroid tumors is that they are almost always benign, especially for women in their 30s and 40s. However, they can cause a multitude of discomforts, including heavy menstrual bleeding (menorrhagia), painful menstruation (dysmenorrhea), backaches, and/or abdominal or pelvic bloating and heaviness. If the fibroids grow large enough to protrude into the pelvic cavity, other pelvic organs may be involved, resulting in urinary frequency and urgency, or constipation. Most fibroids, however, are asymptomatic and many women don't know they have them until they cause a problem or a gynecological exam detects them.
Uterine fibroids are solid, noncancerous tumors made of fibrous and smooth muscle tissues. The preeminence of fibrous tissue gives these tumors their name. Their etiology is unknown, but they seem to be estrogen-dependent because they don't develop before a woman gets her first period and they decrease in size and occurrence after menopause, when estrogen levels are low. Oral contraceptives that contain estrogen compounds, and pregnancy can stimulate the growth of these tumors. (I have seen pregnant women who looked as if they were carrying twins when, in fact, one mass was a fibroid.) There also might be a predisposition based upon genetics.
The sizes of fibroids vary from microscopic to ones that takes up the entire abdominal cavity. Fibroids affect nearly 20 percent of women over the age of 20 and approximately 40 percent of women 35 to 45 years of age. In the United States, Asian-American and African-American women are two to five times more likely than Caucasian women to have them.
There are several different types of uterine fibroid tumors based upon their location within the pelvis:
- Submucous fibroids grow just below the lining of the uterus and can be responsible for painful periods because they grow and move around the pelvic area.
- Intramural fibroids are round and frequently found within the uterine wall. They cause uterine enlargement as they grow.
- Subserous fibroids grow on the outer wall of the uterus. These are often asymptomatic until they grow large enough to interfere with other pelvic organs.
- Pedunculated fibroids develop when subserous fibroids grow a stalk (peduncle). When these enlarge, they often twist and cause extreme pain.
- Interligamentous fibroids grow sideways between the uterine ligaments. Their location makes them difficult to remove without interrupting the blood supply or other abdominal organs.
- Parasitic fibroids are the rarest form and occur when a fibroid attaches itself to another organ.
The diagnosis of fibroids usually is made when the provider palpates a mass during a routine gynecological exam. An ultrasound confirms the diagnosis and determines the type of fibroid.
When a client with a confirmed fibroid comes for a massage, it is important to avoid massaging the abdomen with any deep strokes. If any type of pressure causes pain, the abdominal massage should be stopped. Client positioning also is determined by comfort level. If prone positioning is uncomfortable, position her side-lying with a pillow under her neck and others placed between her knees.
Women have many options to treat uterine fibroids. The most extreme is a hysterectomy to remove the uterus. Only about 10 percent to 20 percent of fibroids require surgery. While it is certainly an effective way to remove the fibroids that have been causing pain, it puts women into an immediate surgical menopause if the ovaries also are removed and, like any surgical procedure, has many risks. An incision is made in the lower abdomen, although it can sometimes be performed vaginally. Recovery from this major surgery can take as long as six weeks.
A less invasive treatment is a procedure known as myomectomy. During this surgery, which may be done as an outpatient procedure depending on the number, size and location of the fibroids, the uterus is left intact. If an abdominal incision is made, the recovery takes as long as a hysterectomy. It may be performed using a laparoscope - lighted surgical tubes inserted near the navel - or through the vagina with a hysteroscope.
Rather than going under the knife, some women opt for embolization of the fibroids. This nonsurgical procedure cuts off the blood supply to the fibroids, which effectively shrinks them, although they don't necessarily disappear. A catheter is inserted through the patient's femoral artery and gently moved to each affected uterine artery. Tiny pellets are inserted through the catheter which blocks the blood supply. A woman must remain in the hospital for a day or two and is able to resume normal activities within the week. Embolization studies have found an 85 percent to 95 percent reduction in fibroid symptoms, while not actually eliminating them.
Prior to undergoing any type of surgery or medical procedure, women might opt for acupuncture, with or without herbal remedies, to treat their fibroids. The first mention of uterine fibroids in traditional Chinese medicine was in the Ling Shu (ca. 100 BC), which described them as "stony tumors." Chinese medicine categorizes fibroid tumors as zheng xia, or "masses in the uterus with a feeling of pain, swelling or fullness, and with bleeding in severe cases." TCM recognizes three patterns of uterine fibroids and treats them accordingly: qi stagnation and blood stasis; yin deficiency and empty-fire blazing; and liver qi stagnation and spleen deficiency. Once the appropriate pattern has been determined, acupuncture and specific herbs are provided. TCM is very effective in reducing or eliminating many types of uterine fibroids, especially if they are caught early.
Pharmaceutical drugs also can be taken to reduce the size of these fibroids and control the bleeding they often cause. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can be taken alone or with the addition of progesterone. A synthetic form of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (Lupron) controls the supply of estrogen and progesterone, which causes the fibroids to decrease in size. However, its use is limited because long-term use contributes to osteoporosis and once a woman stops taking Lupron, the fibroids grow back. It is more effective when used prior to a myomectomy to shrink the tumors and make the surgery easier.
A cutting-edge procedure (which is not necessarily covered by insurance) is an MRI-guided ultrasound. High-intensity ultrasound is directed at the fibroids, heating them and breaking down their outer walls. The procedure takes a few hours and the patient has to remain in a prone position in an MRI machine with her head outside of the machine and her abdomen submerged in a pool of water. Risk factors include burns and nerve damage, and the effects of this intensive ultrasound on future pregnancies have not been determined.
Uterine fibroids are not life-threatening growths, but the symptoms they cause can have a major impact on a woman's quality of life. Thankfully, there are many options available today, and women can make their decisions based upon their own needs.
- Brody JE. Options for dealing with uterine fibroids. New York Times, Oct. 13, 2009.
- Cornforth T. What every woman needs to know about benign uterine fibroid tumors.
- Dharmananda S. Chinese herbal therapy for uterine fibroids.
- Liu W, Gong C. Chinese medicine approaches to uterine fibroids.
- Salvo SG. Mosby's Pathology for Massage Therapists, 2nd ed. St. Louis: Mosby, 2009.