Fibroid: Is This Causing Your Infertility?

If you have fibroids, you are probably saying a choice curse word every time you think of your little (and in some cases) big uterine friend(s). Like a bad house guest, they can be a big pain in the rear end. They can cause bleeding, pain, pressure, and infertility. Bottom line, they are not fun. And unfortunately, this un-fun party is very well attended; nearly a quarter of reproductive-age women have fibroids. Furthermore, fibroids are the cause for about 2% of infertility cases. Simply stated, you are not the only person who RSVPed yes to the fibroid gala. They work their magic (or rather interfere with the magic) usually by interfering with implantation, distorting the uterus, or blocking off one or both of the tubes. They can take up prime real estate, and this can lead to miscarriage and pre-term delivery.

Depending on the block they chose to call their home (a.k.a. their location in the uterus), their impact on fertility and pregnancy may be more pronounced. Fibroids that are located within or partly within the uterine cavity (medically termed submucosal) almost always need to be evicted before pregnancy. Additionally, these are the ones that are most likely to cause true infertility. Intramural fibroids (those located in the muscle) can go both ways; how they are going to lean is really anyone’s guess. As a general rule, the bigger, the bigger pain for you and everything fertility related. They can press on important things (like tubes or the cavity) and cause problems that need to be dealt with. Last, those hanging out outside the uterus (subserosal) have almost no effect on fertility or pregnancy. Don’t even give them a second thought.

While fibroids can be treated medically or surgically, when it comes to fertility, medical options are no bueno. Most, if not all, medical options will prevent ovulation and implantation, which will prevent pregnancy, so that’s not going to work. Surgical options are really the only ones on the table, and even these “dishes” are limited.

So here is what is on the menu—myomectomy (myoma means fibroid and ectomy means removal). Myomectomies can be performed through an open bikini-cut incision, a camera (laparoscope), a robot, or vaginally. The approach depends on the size of the fibroid(s), the location of the fibroid(s), and the number of fibroid(s). It also depends on your surgeon’s experience and preference. Make sure you are comfortable with all of the above before you commit to anything or anyone.

Surgery will almost definitely bring the bothersome bleeding, pain, and pressure to a halt. However, it can increase your chance for scar tissue (both within the uterus and the pelvis) and other surgical complications. Surgery, no matter who does it, is the real deal. For this reason, you want to avoid going under the knife unless it is absolutely necessary. It will also in many cases, particularly when there are many fibroids, require that you to have a C-Section. The uterus is a muscle, and after surgery, it will be forever changed, scarred, and sometimes weakened. You want to make sure that you treat your muscle with tons of TLC—labor, contractions, and hours of pushing is not anyone’s definition of TLC.

And while we are talking about surgery, we recommend that you always ask your surgeon for their notes from the surgery (a.k.a. the operative report). This is super helpful to anyone else—your OB/GYN or your fertility doctor—who decides to date your uterus in the future. Knowing who has been there and what they have done will help us guide your treatment.

Two big questions come to patients’ minds and ours when considering fibroids and fertility. Are they causing my infertility, and should I treat them before I do fertility treatment? First things first, fibroids are very rarely the sole cause of infertility. If you think of a pizza pie, they are even smaller than the smallest slice (think more of like a baby bite). Usually, fibroids plus something else are keeping you on the fertility sidelines. So even if your fertility doctor diagnoses you with fibroids, they are usually not alone in making this baby thing difficult. For this reason, we always recommend completing the entire fertility work-up before pointing the finger at the fibroid.

The second question is way more complicated. When do you treat a fibroid? This question about fibroids is more controversial than religion and politics at a family dinner! However, while getting us all to agree on when to treat is nearly impossible, we can almost all agree that fibroids, which are on the outermost layer of the uterus, are outside the realm of what we need to treat. They are not causing infertility and don’t need to be treated before a fertility treatment. Exceptions to this are if they are very large causing pain and pressure of the bladder.

On the flip side, fibroids that are in the uterus (submucosal) of women who are experiencing infertility or recurrent miscarriages need to come out before any fertility treatment is started. The fibroid is like a roadblock, blocking any and all traffic. They need to come out before any cars try to pass. The trickiest ones are the ones in the muscle (intramural). It’s like our Congress—no one can really agree on what is right. For most there is a split down the aisle for which to treat and when. The line in the sand usually comes down to how big it is, where it is, and if you had previous fibroid surgery. Fibroid surgery is not something you want to double down on!

Unfortunately, of all the partners you will have, your fibroid is the least likely to leave you. Only menopause and a hysterectomy will break you two up. However, there are ways to temporize them and to temporarily remove them so that you can “attempt to see other people.” Take our advice. Tell them, “It’s not you. It’s me. I just really want to have a baby and don’t want you hanging around.” While they may reappear one day, hopefully, they will leave you alone long enough for a pregnancy to take place.

Inflammatory Soup with a Side of Adhesion Bread: Endometriosis

There are certain subjects in school (think calculus, physics, and for some of us, poetry) that just make you want to go, “Ugh.” Looking at formulas or sonnets makes you want to rip your hair out. No matter what you do, you just don’t get it. In many ways, the same can be said for endometriosis (a.k.a. endo). It is sort of like that black box in gynecology and infertility. We know it hurts. We know it can cause infertility, and we know it can cause problems. But we’re still a bit unclear on the hows and whys. How does it get there? Why does it get there? How does it cause pain? Why does it cause pain? While many of these questions have the start of an answer, they lack a conclusion. The unknown can make them hard to diagnose, to manage, and to treat.

Welcome to Endo 101. Here, we will give you the abridged version. Endometriosis is the implantation of endometrial tissue (that is, the tissue that is supposed to stay inside your uterus and only your uterus) in other places. How these cells break free from their uterine jail is as much of a mystery as how El Chapo escaped from jail. However, once the inmates (or cells) have been released, it’s tough to get them back in.

Many of us in the biz or in the know refer to endometriosis as “endo.” The shortened nickname does not mean the symptoms and the negative side effects that its presence brings are in any way short. In fact, this laundry list is quite lengthy. Women often report symptoms ranging from pain (including pain with periods, intercourse, defecation, and urination), infertility, diarrhea/constipation, and a no-joke impact on one’s quality of life. Symptoms can even be as vague as back pain, chronic fatigue, or abnormal bleeding.

The degree of pain and even infertility can be mild, or it can be severe. And the worst part of it all is that the extent of disease doesn’t equal the degree of symptoms (it’s sounding even more like calculus!). The trickiest part about endo is that, to diagnose it, you must operate on it. Symptoms and even visuals (ultrasound images) can’t make the call (although they can come pretty darn close). You must go to the operating room and have the tissue sent to the pathologist for a diagnosis. Although you can be nearly certain that the diagnosis is endometriosis, you can’t prove it without a reasonable doubt until the eyes of your pathologist friend sees the evidence. The judge and jury here are pretty small.

If you are suffering from endometriosis, you have probably thought on many a night, “Why me?” How did I win this unlucky lottery? Endo is no $200 million Powerball—it is actually fairly common. In women undergoing surgery for pelvic pain, up to 30% will have endometriosis. It’s nearly impossible to know how common endo is in the general population because many women will have it but won’t even know it. Bottom line, it is likely way more common than we know.

What makes someone more likely to hit the “un-lottery” lottery has not been fully worked out. While we know that there is definitely a genetic component, the endo gene(s) have not yet been identified. However, if your mom, grandma, and sister have it, there is fairly good chance you will, too. Other likely originators of endo include:

  • Changes in the immune system,
  • Retrograde menstruation (when the blood goes backwards through the fallopian tubes into the pelvis rather than out of the cervix into the vagina), and
  • The passing of endometrial cells through the lymphatic system (think lymph nodes, which are actually located not just in your throat but throughout your whole body!).

Who will win a game of Roulette is anyone’s guess, but our money is on a mixture of all three. Additionally, women are less likely to have endo if they have had multiple children, breastfed for a long time, or got their first period later.  On the flipside, women are more likely to have endo if they have not had children, got their periods early, went through menopause late, bleed for longer duration with their periods, have more frequent periods, and variations in their reproductive anatomy (called Mullerian anomalies). While you may have gotten it without any of the above, we as fertility MDs are definitely more likely to look for it in certain women.

The thing about endometriosis is that it only makes a peep when estrogen is around. If there is no estrogen (hence hormonal contraceptives, Lupron, or menopause), endo is quiet as a mouse! Because it can’t act without estrogen, it pretty much only impacts women during their reproductive years (late teens to 40s). For this reason, most of the treatments center on shutting down the production of estrogen. It’s like taking the logs out of the fire. Without fuel, nothing can burn! While this sounds all well and good, most of us can’t be without fuel for our whole life. At some point, you might want to get pregnant. This will require adding fuel back to the fire. For this reason, it’s not a bad idea to see a fertility specialist before you stir things up.

Endo plays a pretty bad game of hide and seek. (Basically, we can see it coming from a mile away!) When the decision is finally made to go into the operating room and take a look, the disease is often pretty easily spotted. While the most characteristic appearance consists of the blue/brown “powder burn” spots, the look of endo can be very Houdini-esque. Endometriosis can look like brown spots, red patches, yellow-brown discoloration, or white spots.

To know for sure what’s up, the tissue must be sent to the pathology lab for a thorough onceover. The most common places for endo to hang out are on the ovaries, on the tubes, in the pelvis, on the ligaments that hold up the uterus and the ovaries, in the colon, and on the appendix. Where it makes its home often translates into the symptoms that you have. Again, this is not always the case. Some women can have endo painting their ovaries, their tubes, their pelvis, and their colon and experience no symptoms.

While surgery is required to make a diagnosis, not everyone needs surgery. A good history, physical, and sometimes imaging can give us enough info to convict (a.k.a. start treatment). The treatments are plentiful (think Thanksgiving Day dinner) and will be passed around to see which “tastes” best for your body. Women who are trying to get pregnant ASAP will have to opt out of most of the dishes (although options still exist). The silver lining with endo is that, for almost all women, the symptoms disappear during pregnancy. While we don’t recommend getting pregnant simply for an endo time-out, it will make matters way better.

Unfortunately, endo is the gift that keeps on not gifting (or re-gifting things you don’t want!). And unlike a good gift giver, there is no receipt and no return policy. If it is yours, it’s yours for life. There are many ways to tailor that shirt or tighten those pants so that you can live with them. Same goes for endo. We can do a lot to make you pain free if we know what’s putting you out. It’s definitely a bumpy ride. You may need several fittings, but we know a pretty good tailor. Just make sure to be completely honest with your doctor, and do your research before committing to any treatment.