Raise your hand if you know anything about uterine fibroids. Bueller? Bueller? While uterine fibroids aren’t standard info covered in Women’s Bodies 101, they should be: Up to 70 percent of all women are likely to get them in their lifetime. Here are all the nitty-gritty details you need to know:
Also known as leiomyomas or myomas, these are the most common uterine tumors. One study found that between 70 to 80 percent of all women will get them by the age of 50. You’re most likely to see them in your 40s and early 50s.
Fibroids are benign, non-cancerous tumors—but uterine fibroids can have similar symptoms to a rare form of cancer called uterine sarcoma. Unfortunately, scientists don’t have a reliable way to detect sarcoma—except when they are doing surgery to remove fibroids. If you’ve got fibroids, you’ll want to discuss the risk of uterine sarcoma with your doc.
They’re two to three times more likely, in fact. These fibroids also typically develop at a younger age, grow larger, and cause more severe symptoms. You may also have an increased risk of fibroids if you have never been pregnant, are severely overweight, or have a family member who has fibroids.
Good news! Fibroids only require treatment if they are causing you symptoms—and most women with fibroids are symptom-free. “If a woman with fibroids has no related symptoms, it may be unnecessary to recommend treatment beyond clinical observation over time, as long as the small risk of hidden sarcoma is discussed,” says Antonio Pizarro, M.D., board-certified doctor in obstetrics and gynecology, female pelvic medicine, and reconstructive surgery.
More than 200,000 hysterectomies—the surgical removal of the uterus—are performed each year for uterine fibroids in the United States. Along with making you infertile, the procedure also carries its own risks, so doctors only recommend it when the fibroids are extremely painful or have not responded to other methods.
There are now a number of medical therapies that can be used to shrink or slow the growth of fibroids, including hormone treatments, ultrasound therapy, or a myomectomy, which removes the fibroids while leaving the uterus in tact. If the fibroids don’t require removal, there are other treatments that can help you deal with symptoms such as ibuprofen, birth control pills, or ablation (a procedure using radiofrequency energy to destroy tissue).
Most women with fibroids have issue-free pregnancies, but they can cause some complications. Some research suggests that certain types of uterine fibroids can change the size and shape of the uterus, which can impact a woman’s ability to get pregnant—though experts estimate fibroids cause only one to two percent of infertility cases. Fibroids are also linked to a six-time greater risk of needing to deliver via cesarean section and a risk of heavier bleeding after delivery.
“The precise cause of the mutations that cause fibroids is unsettled, despite their very high prevalence and clinical impact,” says Pizarro. Current research leans towards the impact of hormones such as estrogen and progesterone, since tumors rarely appear before a women’s first period and decrease after menopause. Stress, diet, and environmental factors may also play a role in fibroid development.