Crippling menstrual cramps, gastrointestinal problems, and pain during sex are among the most common and distressing symptoms of endometriosis, a gynecological disorder that affects as many as 1 in 10 women. Although endometriosis symptoms are most troubling during the reproductive years, they don’t necessarily disappear once a woman stops menstruating, reports the Harvard Women’s Health Watch.
Endometriosis occurs when tissue similar to the lining of the uterus shows up on the walls of the abdominal cavity and the outer surfaces of the uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, bowel, bladder, and nearby organs. Like the uterine lining, this tissue builds up and sheds monthly in response to the menstrual cycle. But rather than exiting through the vagina, the way menstrual fluid does, it remains trapped, triggering inflammation and scar tissue.
Estrogen fuels the growth of endometriosis, so in theory, dwindling estrogen levels at menopause should lessen the symptoms.
But even after periods have ceased, the ovaries continue to produce small amounts of the hormone, so endometriosis may continue to cause trouble. “I think of endometriosis as a chronic disease that often - but not always - improves after natural or surgical menopause,” says Dr. Martha K. Richardson, editorial board member of the Harvard Women’s Health Watch.
Women with endometriosis also have a higher-than-average risk of autoimmune disorders and related problems, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, hypothyroidism, and fibromyalgia. They’re also more likely to develop ovarian cancer. The Harvard Women’s Health Watch suggests that if you have endometriosis, be sure to have annual checkups and any tests recommended by your clinician.
Revision date: July 6, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD