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Understanding uterine fibroids

Here's what you need to know about symptoms and treatment.

Uterine fibroids are common, noncancerous growths that can sometimes cause painful symptoms in women.

The growths affect more than 20% of women younger than 50, reports the Office on Women's Health (OWH). Overweight women, African American women and women who have a family member with the condition are at greater risk for developing fibroids than are other women.

According to OWH, the growths may appear on the inside or outside wall of the uterus or, most often, within the wall itself. Some fibroids grow on stalks and may resemble mushrooms.

What are the symptoms?

In most cases, fibroids don't cause symptoms and often don't need to be treated. However, some women with fibroids may have:

  • Heavy or painful periods or bleeding between periods.
  • A full feeling in the lower abdomen.
  • Frequent urination.
  • Pain during sex.
  • Lower back pain.

Doctors can use imaging tests such as ultrasound, x-ray and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to check for fibroids.

What is the cause?

Researchers aren't certain why some women develop fibroids. Along with race and weight, factors that may play a role include:

  • Changes in hormone levels. Fibroids tend to grow rapidly during pregnancy, when hormone levels are high, but shrink after menopause, when hormone levels decrease.
  • Having a family history of fibroids.
  • Eating a diet high in red meat and ham.

Is there a risk for cancer?

It's rare for fibroids to become cancerous, reports OWH. Having fibroids also doesn't increase a woman's chance of getting other types of cancer.

What about pregnancy?

Fibroids can interfere with a woman becoming pregnant and complicate delivery. For example, women with fibroids are six times more likely to require a C-section than those who don't have fibroids, according to OWH. However, most women with fibroids have normal pregnancies.

Women with fibroids should discuss potential risks with a doctor if they are thinking about becoming pregnant.

How are fibroids treated?

For women with painful symptoms, fibroid treatment options may include:

  • Medications, including over-the-counter pain relievers and prescription medicines that help control fibroid growth and heavy bleeding during menstruation. Fibroids may grow back if prescription medications are stopped.
  • Decreasing blood flow to the fibroids to shrink them.
  • Destroying the fibroids with heat.
  • Surgery to remove fibroids while leaving the uterus intact.
  • Surgery to remove the uterus (hysterectomy).

Women who have had a hysterectomy cannot become pregnant. Some of the other treatment options also can affect a woman's ability to become pregnant. A doctor can help a woman determine which option is most appropriate for her.

Contact your doctor if you have questions or concerns about fibroids.

Reviewed 1/26/2021

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