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Just A ‘Bad Period’? Surprising Ways Endometriosis Can Affect Your Health

For many years, Endometriosis has been somewhat dismissed as a menstrual complication; and for many women suffering from the condition, they’ll be all too familiar with the attitude that many – if not most – women experience ‘bad periods’. Thankfully, research is developing in this area of women’s healthcare and we are starting to understand, little by little, just how extensive this disease can be for women and how it can affect our bodies in quite unexpected ways. 

Generally speaking, we know that some of the symptoms related to Endometriosis are pelvic pain and heavy menstruation; but that’s not the case for everyone suffering from the disease. In fact, many women have silent symptoms until the disease has significantly progressed. Or, at least, that’s what we have assumed until rather recently, due to the limited understanding and research into the condition and women’s health, generally.

In fact, Endometriosis can have a significant impact on women’s whole health – from brain, heart and bladder; to joint pain, nerve damage and even inner ear issues – we need to know more about the impact of endometriosis on our health.

Let’s get back to basics…

Let’s get back to basics for a second, as this is likely the foundation for a lot of the misunderstanding around the condition (of which, there is a lot). Endometriosis is a chronic condition where functional tissue, similar to endometrial tissue, grows outside of the uterus. There is limited understanding as to why this happens, and it’s important to say that while the tissue growths act and behave in a similar way to endometrium, it’s not believed to be exactly the same. You might have heard that it’s ‘misplaced’, or ‘escaped’ tissue – but there is no evidence to that cause, currently.

What we do know is that this endometrial tissue behaves in a similar way to that of the uterine lining. Stimulated by female sex hormones, the tissue thickens, breaks down and bleeds as it does during menstruation. The only problem is that this tissue cannot exit the body and so it collects rather than dissipates, causing further inflammation and scar tissue to form in the pelvic area and between and on other organs, such as the bowel, bladder, appendix. This can ‘fuse’ organs together – it’s not uncommon for the bowel, bladder and uterus to be joined by endometriosis, for example.

During my laparoscopy, I was shocked to discover that my bowel, bladder and womb had all kind of joined together, because of the endo. It explained why I had so many problems with my gut – I’d been diagnosed with IBS before endometriosis!

But it doesn’t stop there. In advanced stages (III and IV), endometriosis has spread around the body to the diaphragm, liver, heart and has even been found in the brain. While cases of wide spread endo are unusual and rare, there’s such limited understanding and research into the disease until recently that we can be assured that many more women experience extensive endometriosis than previously believed. 

So why is it so often associated with periods?

For many women, one of the first symptoms of endometriosis is heavy bleeding – even passing clots, accompanied with cramping that can be so bad it’s almost impossible to work, or live your life as you would normally. We know that endometrosis is an estrogen dependent condition – and during our menstrual cycle, our hormonal fluctuations may stimulate the disease. However, many women experience pain throughout the month – not specifically just during menstruation. Even women who have had a subtotal hysterectomy, or are post-menopausal report endometriosis pain – and it’s often as common during ovulation as it is during menstruation.

‘Bad periods’ have become so normalised in women’s health but they are a significant symptom that something might not be right. Painful or or heavy menstruation can be indicative of a number of pelvic or gynaecological disorders, and it’s important that you don’t minimise or dismiss pain and bleeding, especially if it’s a recent change or abnormal for your cycle. Speaking to your physician is crucial in order for it to be monitored, managed and investigated if it’s continuing or affecting your life adversely.

The common, and often initial symptoms of endometriosis, aside from cramps and bleeding, are:

  • Pain during, or after sex
  • Bowel changes – ie, constipation and diarrohea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Discomfort or pain when peeing
  • Infertility

What ‘types’ of Endometriosis are there?

Endometriosis can be categorized into different types based on the location and severity of the condition. The three main types of endometriosis are:

Superficial Peritoneal Endometriosis: This type involves the endometrial tissue attaching to the thin membrane that lines the pelvis and abdomen. It is considered the least severe type of endometriosis

Ovarian Endometrioma (Endometrioma): Also known as “chocolate cysts,” these are fluid-filled cysts found in the ovaries. They are a common type of endometriosis and come in various sizes

Deep Infiltrating Endometriosis (DIE): This type involves the endometrial tissue invading the organs, such as the bowels, bladder, rectum, and ovaries, either outside or within the pelvic cavity. It is the most severe type of endometriosis

 

In addition to these types, endometriosis is also classified into stages based on the extent and severity of the disease. The stages are:

  • Stage 1 (minimal): Characterized by isolated implants and no significant adhesions.
  • Stage 2 (mild): Involves more implants than in stage 1, with mild adhesions.
  • Stage 3 (moderate): Indicates a substantial number of deep implants and the presence of small cysts on one or both ovaries, as well as flimsy adhesions.
  • Stage 4 (severe): The most widespread stage, with large cysts on one or both ovaries, a significant number of thick adhesions, and deep implants. 

Research is ongoing into DIE and understanding the extent of how stage IV spreads in the body. Although rare, endometriosis can affect organs such as the heart (thoracic endometrosis), liver (hepatic endometriosis), diaphrapm (Diaphragmatic endometriosis) – and even more rarely, it has been found in the brain, eyes, skin, pancreas, kidneys and appendix.

What are some of the lesser known symptoms of Endometriosis?

Alongside some of the most common symptoms, there are lesser known but important symptoms to keep an eye on. It might help to keep a journal of your symptoms to see if there is a pattern, or if they occur at a similar time as other symptoms such as pelvic pain. Unfortunately, there is still a lack of research into these lesser known symptoms, with many women anecdotally reporting them before confirmation via laparoscopy.

Reported symptoms thought to be connected with endometriosis are:

  • Joint pain and fatigue
  • Weight gain or fluctuation
  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Sciatic-like pain, especially radiating into legs and feet
  • Inner ear pain
  • Gum problems and disease
  • Pain outside of the pelvis – ie, under ribcage or shoulder tip pain
  • Chest pain
  • Feeling of incomplete emptying of bowels, or something ‘stuck’ inside rectum
  • Chronic UTIs and urgency to pee
  • Dizzyness or fainting
  • Feeling of fullness, burping or heartburn

These are just some of the lesser known symptoms of endometriosis – if you suspect that something you are experiencing may be connected then speaking to your physician in the first incidence is important. An Endometrosis Specialist will be able to conduct further investigations to check for DIE or Stage IV and recommend a pathway for treatment or management of your symptoms.

Do you have endometriosis? Have you experienced unusual symptoms and wondered whether they are connected to the disease? Come and share your experiences with us in our Facebook community

 

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