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A Pain You Can't Ignore: Endometriosis

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Stomachaches, nausea, cramps. What you think is just part of being female could actually be a dangerous, debilitating disease. Here's what you need to know about endometriosis -- and why exercise could be the best antidote of all.

What Is Endometriosis?

Last January, after a long run, I sat down to a delicious dinner of Thai takeout -- then sprinted to the bathroom three hours later. Diarrhea turned to blood, and when I thought I was well enough to stand, I actually passed out. My husband, Scott, found me a few feet from the toilet with my pants around my ankles. He was scared; I was mortified. We'd been married only six months, and this was hardly newlywed bliss.

I blamed dodgy tofu, or maybe a bad mango salad. My symptoms persisted through the night, so I called a gastroenterologist the next morning. He saw me right away and scheduled a colonoscopy. The verdict? Inflammation and impaired blood flow to the large intestine, a problem most common in men and women over the age of 60. I'm 33.

The stomach pain, nausea, and diarrhea continued for several weeks, coupled with sharp cramps and deep pain during sex. My GI doctor prescribed a common antispasm medication to calm my intestinal issues. I saw a food allergist to manage my diet and bloating, and an acupuncturist to help with the cramps. I still exercised, though not as often. I found that high-intensity Spinning, when I felt up to it, muted the pain.

After months of turmoil, my gyno performed laparoscopic surgery; this revealed that I have endometriosis, a chronic disease in which the uterus's endometrial lining begins to grow elsewhere, such as on other pelvic organs, interfering with their function and potentially damaging the bladder, intestines, and appendix. Surgery, the only sure way to confirm and correct the condition, showed that the sticky endometrial lining was binding my left ovary to my intestines and uterus, putting pressure on the organs and likely causing the intestinal problems. It had also grown on both ovaries and the area behind my uterus, which contributed to my stomach pain.

Listen to Your Gut

Endometriosis is a problem that more than 80 million women across the world suffer from -- with at least 10 million cases in the United States alone, according to the Endometriosis Research Center. It's one of the top three causes of infertility, is the source of an estimated 80 percent of chronic pelvic pain, and accounts for more than half of the 600,000 hysterectomies performed annually. A 2007 study calculated that costs of endometriosis care in the U.S. reached $22 billion in one year alone.

Yet because few women share details about something so personal, it's easy to feel, as I did, confused about what's happening. Here's what I learned: During a normal period, the uterus sheds its endometrial lining, and small amounts of endometrial cells pass harmlessly through the pelvic area and exit the body. But in an endometriosis patient, when these cells are shed they invade other areas of the body. They frequently implant themselves on the uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, bladder, appendix, and rectum, where they cause inflammation and painful scarring, and can lead to filmy adhesions that bind together organs, muscles, and ligaments. (This is different from uterine fibroids, which are benign growths on or inside the uterine walls.) In severe cases, multiple organs can become plastered together. No one knows the precise cause of the condition, though some research points to genetic links. Estrogen is known to stimulate the growth of endometrial tissue.

Because endometriosis pain most often occurs during ovulation, menstruation, urination, bowel movements, and sex, it's frequently dismissed or mistaken as a symptom of another health condition, which can lead to months or even years of misdiagnosis. This is especially true for younger women. "Studies indicate that up to 70 percent of teenagers with painful periods already have endometriosis," says Bruce Lessey, MD, PhD, a leading researcher of the condition and medical director of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Greenville Hospital System University Medical Center in South Carolina. Doctors regularly prescribe birth control pills as the first line of defense against period pain, since moderating estrogen and progesterone levels has been shown to ease menstrual cramps. Lowering estrogen levels also eases endometriosis symptoms, however, so going on the pill may disguise the condition until a woman wants to start a family and discovers she can't conceive.

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L2h9c10 wrote:

For the 6 years before I was diagnosed I had been running a lot and had built up to doing marathons and started training for an ultra marathon. I am sure that the training I was doing was right. However, whilst exercise does help and has to be a positive, lay off during the period itself. I am convinced that retrograde menses through the fallopian tubes and into the abdominal cavity is increased with long high intensity sport during your period.

5/1/2014 10:32:29 AM Report Abuse
gapgirl2981 wrote:

Wow! I wish I could say the sentence below was true for me,I suffered Excrutiating pain due to my endometriosis after running, so bad that I was passed out on my yoga mat unable to finish the workout, I would take extreme caution when excersing. " the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found that high-intensity workouts, such as running, biking, and playing tennis, three or more times a week slashed endometriosis risk by 76 percent.."

11/9/2012 06:14:25 PM Report Abuse
stbowen0079 wrote:

I was just diagnosed with endometritis. I have only ever had mild cramps, three weeks ago I awoke, could barely walk. A few days later,could't walk. I do not know if this is a correct diagnosis, but I do know, three weeks I feel as if someone is reaching up and is trying to pull my uterus out by their bear hands. I go in for a second opinion in a few days and pray for anyone who has gone though this for more than a month, you are blessed with a greater threashold than I.

9/25/2012 11:00:50 PM Report Abuse
Krissy916 wrote:

A year ago I had laproscopic surgery due to painful periods & discovered that I have endometriosis. My uterus was bound to my bowels & I had extensive scarring. I'm 26 & recently married. Praying that this will not affect our ability to conceive. I am being treated by seasonal birth control, but hope to come off them soon to start TTC. I still experience intense pain during my periods. Often getting sick or feeling like I may pass out. I have never had the system of painful intercourse.

5/1/2012 02:15:44 PM Report Abuse
alweil wrote:

i am 70 now, 10 yrs ago i had a hysterectomy after spotting and ultrasound, my doc of 15 yrs said somethings wrong and i had the surgery & then finding out that i had endometriosis and probably had it for many yrs, i started my periods at 12 and it was hell from then on for me, docs thenjust said take aspirin, i was so sick and could not stay in school on those days

10/29/2009 12:49:23 AM Report Abuse

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