Shining a Light On Fibroids During Fibroid Awareness Month

Black women in workout gear

July is Fibroid Awareness Month. A common problem for many women, uterine fibroids are nonmalignant growths of the uterus and one of the most common gynecological conditions nationwide, as well as a growing and overlooked public health issue.

Fibroids affect about 26 million American women ages 15 to 50. According to the Society for Women’s Health Research, more than 80% of Black women and 70% of white women have fibroids by age 50. However, Black women tend to experience onset at a younger age, and they have more severe symptoms and a higher rate of surgery and hospitalization.

What Are Fibroids?

Uterine fibroids (leiomyomas) are tumors made of smooth muscle and fibrous connective tissue. They can grow on or within the inner lining of the uterus. Fibroids usually do not interfere with getting pregnant; however, their location can sometimes cause infertility or pregnancy complications.

There are three main types of fibroids: submucosal fibroids that grow just under the uterine lining, bulging into the uterine cavity; intramural fibroids that grow within the muscle wall of the uterus; and subserosal fibroids that grow just under the surface, projecting outside of the uterus.

Fibroids can develop in any girl or woman after the onset of her menstrual cycle. Although fibroids are most diagnosed in individuals in their 30s and 40s, they can occur in adolescents and postmenopausal women, particularly those using hormone therapy.

Fibroids tend to increase during the reproductive years and shrink after menopause. The spectrum of fibroid disease varies widely and is based on the size, number and location of the growths. Sizes vary from tiny seedlings to as large as a melon. Some women develop multiple fibroids in different sizes and locations. Though not associated with an increased risk of uterine cancer, women who have fibroids can experience mild to severe side effects that can affect their quality of life.

Factors & Symptoms of Fibroids

According to the Society for Women’s Health Research, symptoms are not directly correlated to fibroid size or quantity, making it challenging to predict the impact and burden from patient to patient. Furthermore, some women living with fibroids are asymptomatic and do not experience discomfort to alert them to their condition.

Common symptoms of fibroid disease include:

• Heavy menstrual bleeding or painful periods
• Longer or more frequent periods
• Pelvic pressure or pain
• Frequent urination or trouble urinating
• Growing stomach area
• Constipation
• Pain in the stomach area or lower back, or pain during sex

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), common factors associated include:

• Age
• African-American race
• Obesity
• Family history of uterine fibroids
• High blood pressure
• No history of pregnancy
• Vitamin D deficiency
• Food additive consumption
• Use of soybean milk

Black female patient discussing fibroids with her doctor

How Fibroids Are Diagnosed

Fibroids are normally found during a routine pelvic exam with your gynecologist or primary care physician. They may ask about any relevant symptoms, take a medical history and perform a physical exam to confirm a diagnosis.

Though some women may find it difficult or embarrassing to discuss symptoms like heavy and irregular bleeding, it is very important to have open, honest communication. Diagnosis may also be challenging because common fibroid symptoms such as heavy or irregular menstrual bleeding, pelvic and back pain, and frequent urination may overlap with symptoms of endometriosis and adenomyosis.

Treatment Options

Though there is no cure for uterine fibroids, research to better understand this disease and advance therapeutic options is ongoing. There are many options available to help you manage the symptoms and progression of this chronic disease. Treatment should consider your age, the severity of your symptoms, the characteristics of the fibroids, and your short- and long-term family planning goals.

Treatment options include nonprescription pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or naproxen, and heating pads and prescription medications to reduce pain and menstrual bleeding on heavy bleeding days. Other treatment options focus on shrinking or removing fibroid growths with minimally invasive surgical procedures. As with any treatment, we suggest you discuss all options with your healthcare provider to determine the right treatment for you.

Managing Your Lifestyle

Living with fibroids can be manageable. The Society for Women’s Health Research recommends the following:

• A healthy diet rich in green and cruciferous vegetables, fruits and low-fat dairy may help lessen fibroid symptoms, whereas a sugar-rich diet can have the opposite effect. Iron-rich meals can assist in avoiding anemia if your periods are extremely heavy and long.
• Managing weight and obesity also reduces the risk of fibroids. Some fibroid symptoms can be lessened by incorporating exercise into your daily routine, such as stretching, cardiovascular activities and strength training, which release endorphins that help to alleviate pain and cramps.
• Practicing stress-reducing activities like yoga or meditation may help decrease inflammation and relieve stress-aggravated pain. Alternative therapies such as acupuncture have also been found to help reduce period pain in some women.
• Heavy and irregular menstrual bleeding and pelvic pain can interfere with your sex life. It may feel uncomfortable discussing your condition or concerns about your relationship, but it helps if you can be open and honest. Discuss your symptoms and how they may interrupt your plans from time to time with your partner. Find ways to cope with your symptoms together.
• Joining a support group like the White Dress Project allows you to connect with other women who have fibroids. This nonprofit organization is made up of women with impactful fibroid journeys who educate, empower and support those who are managing life with fibroids.
• Scheduling travel during the less problematic times of your monthly cycle and packing portable heat wraps or thermal pads to manage pain can be helpful when you’re on the go.
• Try to journal what you eat and drink that might be different from your normal regimen at home and carve out enough time to rest and allow your body to recuperate after strenuous or high-intensity activities.