Abdominal pain, heavy periods, menstrual cramps, and painful sex just sound like some of the routine burdens of being a woman. Monthly pains and annoyances around menstruation are a given, and painful sex is (unfortunately) very normal for many. But these symptoms are also hallmark signs of endometriosis, a severely painful and under-diagnosed medical condition that affects about 10 percent of women.
What is Endometriosis actually?
Endometriosis is when the tissue that makes up the uterine lining (the lining of the womb) is present on other organs inside your body. Endometriosis is usually found in the lower abdomen, or pelvis, but can appear anywhere in the body. [source: UCLA Health]
Endometriosis is estimated to affect between 3% and 10% of reproductive-aged women. Endometriosis can only be truly diagnosed by a doctor performing a laparoscopy (a surgery where a doctor looks in the abdomen with a camera usually through the belly button) and taking a sample of a suspected abnormality.
The cramps you get during your period can be tough. But if you have endometriosis, the pain can feel so intense it can affect your daily routine, and it even can stop you from doing some of the things you love.
Endometriosis vs. Menstrual
Menstrual cramps are common, and you can usually get rid of them with over-the-counter medication or home remedies. But the pain from endometriosis is sometimes called “killer cramps” because it can be severe enough to stop you in your tracks. For a lot of women, it gets worse as they get older.
Aside from the pain, other symptoms include:
- Really long or extremely heavy periods
- Severe migraines or lower back pain during your period
- Painful bowel movements
- Allergies that get worse around your period
- Bleeding between periods
5 signs you might have endometriosis
Many women who are affected never receive a diagnosis. These are the symptoms you need to know. These are the most common symptoms of endometriosis that all women of child-bearing age need to be aware of.
1. Heavy periods
Many women with endometriosis experience extremely heavy periods and may even notice clots in their period blood. The Mayo Clinic notes the condition usually develops a few years after the first period, so women with endometriosis may just think that’s what a normal period is supposed to look and feel like.
2. Abdominal pain
Pelvic pain is typically the most obvious symptom of endometriosis. Some people may have chronic pain that never goes away, but it usually gets particularly bad right before and during menstruation. When endometrial tissue bleeds in places where it can’t (or can’t easily) exit your body, it can cause swelling and pain, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services explains.
3. Gastrointestinal pain
Endometriosis can cause constipation, diarrhea, intestinal pain, and pain with bowel movements. These symptoms also look a lot like a gastrointestinal problem or a food intolerance, which is why endometriosis is often confused with IBS.
4. Painful intercourse
Painful sex is another big indicator of endometriosis. The pain can happen during sex, right after, or even continue into the day after, Seckin* says. “Pain with orgasm is common, but people don’t usually articulate it,” he adds. Sex can be even more painful before or during your period, when the tissue becomes most inflamed.
Up to 50 percent of women with endometriosis experience infertility. It’s actually possible that the only symptom of the disease you have is infertility. For many women, they don’t learn that they have endometriosis until they start having trouble getting pregnant and go in for a full fertility workup.
Advice: See your doctor if you have signs and symptoms that may indicate endometriosis.
Endometriosis can be a challenging condition to manage. An early diagnosis, a multidisciplinary medical team and an understanding of your diagnosis may result in better management of your symptoms.
Note: * Tamer Seckin, M.D., an NYC-based gynecologist who specializes in treating women with endometriosis, co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America, and author of Recognizing and Treating Endometriosis