Last updated on Feb 4th, 2021 at 04:36 pm

What is endometriosis?

Many women are unaware that they have endometriosis, despite the fact that it’s one of the most common health problems, affecting around 20% of all women. Truth is, it’s an unpredictable disorder that can remain undiagnosed for a long time. It’s most commonly found in women aged 25–35 years, but can start in adolescence, especially among young girls who suffer from heavy, painful periods.

ALSO SEE: Other common infertility issues and how to treat them 

There are many theories explaining the causes of endometriosis. One theory states that when menstrual tissue flows backwards (‘retrograde menstruation’) through the fallopian tubes, it rests on the pelvic organs where it thickens and grows. Hormonal stimulation during the course of a woman’s menstrual cycle can also cause endometrial tissue to grow, which can lead to the formation of scar tissue. This is because the blood that forms in the tissue isn’t released in a woman’s normal monthly cycle, so it becomes trapped inside the tissue causing pain, inflammation and, in some instances, cysts.

Signs and symptoms of endometriosis 

  • The most common sign of endometriosis is pain in the lower stomach region which is often mistaken for period pain. However, as the disease progresses, the pain radiates to the lower back and down the legs. It can also cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Small or large cysts can also develop and possibly rupture, causing sharp surges of pain or inflammation.
  • You might also experience strong period or abdominal pains that don’t subside with painkillers and that affect your ability to concentrate
  • Sex might be painful too and you might feel a constant burning or cramping sensation
  • Some women report feeling full without eating, and experiencing painful bowel or bladder movements.

How endometriosis can affect your fertility 

The Endometriosis Society of South Africa says that 30–50% of women with endometriosis experience some problems conceiving.

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In more severe cases, a build up of scar tissue may bind the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and intestines together, which interferes with the release of eggs or the pick-up of the egg by the fallopian tubes. It’s difficult for these eggs to enter the fallopian tubes after ovulation, and women may struggle to fall pregnant.

Recent studies have found that inflammation in the pelvis from endometriosis stimulates the production of cells that attack sperm and shorten their lifespan. There’s also strong evidence that hormone-like substances called prostaglandins produced by scar tissue, interfere with ovulation and fertilisation. In spite of this, many women with endometriosis have healthy pregnancies.

How to treat endometriosis 

When it comes to endometriosis, there’s no simple cure or solution. However, there’s a variety of treatment methods which can help to relieve symptoms and boost fertility, so it’s not all bad news!

Laparoscopy

Doctors use a laparoscopy and tissue biopsy to find endometrial tissue. Removing the tissue with laparoscopic surgery has shown positive results in increasing the likelihood of natural conception. During the procedure, small patches of tissue are removed using a laser or electric current. However, this is a short-term solution as the tissue can grow back within a few years, and the procedure can be invasive and expensive. Sometimes, doctors suggest that women take additional hormones to further suppress tissue growth.

If you’re trying to conceive, some doctors advise having assisted fertility treatment soon after a laparoscopy to improve your chances of falling pregnant before the endometrial tissue grows back.

Fertility treatments 

According to the Global Forum for Endometriosis, inter-uterine treatment (IUI), where sperm is injected directly into the uterus with hormonal medicine to stimulate the growth of new eggs, has a relatively good success rate. In fact, research shows that women with mild endometriosis are much more likely to conceive using this method of treatment than if they try to fall pregnant naturally. A study published in the journal Human Reproduction, found that in vitro fertilisation (IVF) is another viable fertility option for those with minimal to mild endometriosis.

ALSO SEE: Other ways to future-proof your fertility 

Lifestyle changes that could help treat endometriosis 

  • Maintain a healthy weight: Researchers from Harvard Medical School discovered that overweight women who mostly ate meals high in trans fats had a 48% higher chance of developing endometriosis
  • Reduce stress: Studies indicate that high levels of stress could affect the severity of endometriosis. Introduce stress management techniques into your day if you’re trying to conceive
  • Avoid alcohol and other toxins: This includes tobacco and caffeine, as well as foods high in sugar, salt, and fat. Avoid foods with additives as these can suppress the immune system and cause inflammation
  • Eat m ore essential fats: Foods rich in omega-3s such as oily fish, linoleic acid in flaxseeds and walnuts could help to maintain hormone balance and reduce inflammation in the body.

If you want to take a more natural approach to treating endometriosis, speak to your doctor about which herbal supplements or vitamins you could take. If you’re newly diagnosed with endometriosis, don’t lose hope! There are many women with the disorder who go on to have children, and manage their symptoms.

For more information, speak to your gynae or visit The Endometriosis Society of South Africa. 

The Fertility Show Africa takes place on Friday, March 6, and Saturday, March 7, 2020 at the Gallagher Convention Centre in Midrand, Gauteng. Show times are Friday from 9am to 6pm and Saturday from 9am to 5pm. Learn more at www.fertilityshowafrica.co.za.

The Fertility Show South Africa