National chlamydia rates are currently between two and six percent. Everyone has heard of chlamydia despite a relatively low prevalence rate. One in four women have fibroids, but when I asked 20 students whether they had heard of them before, only five had. Although they sound like something from a sci-fi film, fibroids are very much fact and not fiction.

What are Fibroids?

Fibroids are benign, or non-cancerous, tumours that grow in the womb lining and may also be called myomas or leiomyomas. Leiomyoma comes from the Greek word ‘leios’ meaning smooth, ‘mys’ meaning muscle and the prefix ‘oma’ meaning a swelling; hence the definition of a smooth muscle tumour.

There are three main types, which are classified according to their location in the lining of the womb; they can either grow from the inside wall of the womb and project inwards, grow from the outside wall into the abdomen, or grow within the wall itself. They vary in size, but can grow to the width of a melon. The vast majority of other mammals don’t develop fibroids, but interestingly a high prevalence has been noted in Baltic Gray seals.

Approximately 25% of women of childbearing age have fibroids, and they are 2-3 times more common in women of African-Caribbean descent. There are two hormones called oestrogen and progesterone that occur at higher levels in women of a reproductive age, and it is thought that these could be stimulants for the growth of these uterine tumours. Fibroids tend to shrink naturally after the menopause as the hormone levels drop.

There are many other factors that can predispose a woman to the development of fibroids, including being overweight, taking the oral contraceptive pill and a degree of genetic involvement.

What to look out for

The majority of fibroids don’t have a detrimental effect on daily life, hence many women may have fibroids and be unaware of it. They can be associated with a variety of symptoms including,

>Heavy or painful periods
>Bloating or swelling
>Passing urine more often than usual
>Constipation
>Pain during sex
>Problems conceiving and a risk of miscarriage

In rare cases, large fibroids can affect a woman’s ability to conceive. It is believed that it is mainly the fibroids that affect the environment of the womb that are associated with infertility.

In the course of a pregnancy, fibroids can cause a series of damaging events to both the mother and the foetus. They can induce an early labour, cause the baby to be incorrectly positioned in the womb and also warrant a birth by caesarean section, as well other serious complications.

Are they really fibroids?

If a woman experiences the symptoms above, it is advisable to visit the GP. A diagnosis can be confirmed by a transvaginal scan, which involves using a laparoscope to inspect the outside of the womb or a hysteroscope to examine the womb from the inside. A sample may be taken for analysis in a laboratory.

How are Fibroids treated?

Fibroids can be managed with drugs to reduce their size and if these fail to alleviate the symptoms, a range of other options are available. The surgical removal of fibroids is called myomectomy and is a procedure that has been carried out for over 150 years.

Although there are many treatments available for fibroids, it is common for them to recur, hence the only effective cure is to completely remove the womb. Whilst this eradicates all the symptoms, this option doesn’t suit women who wish to have children.

Students that are aware of fibroids probably think that they are not of any real relevance to them. Indeed, it is uncommon for fibroids to be present in women in their twenties, but not unheard of, and there have been accounts of fibroids in adolescents. If women experience any of the symptoms above, they shouldn’t be afraid to seek assistance from their GP.

Bethany Moos

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