Endometriosis: What is it and what are the symptoms?

Millions of women have the condition, and yet it is little understood. Anna Druet, research scientist for period and fertility tracking app Clue, explains what it is

Most people should have heard of endometriosis. It is a common disorder that affects around 176 million women people of reproductive age worldwide, and yet there is still little understanding of what the condition actually is.

Here is what you need to know about the condition.

So what exactly is endometriosis?

Put simply, it is when tissue that normally grows inside of the uterus (the endometrium) grows outside of the uterus. In most cases, this growth happens on and around organs in the pelvic cavity, and the tissue in endometriosis acts just like it would inside the uterus: it grows, thickens and tries to shed with every menstrual cycle.

In endometriosis, the tissue has no way of leaving the body and it can cause a lot of pain and lead to other complications, including infertility.

We’ve come a long way in terms of breaking down cultural taboos surrounding periods, but talking openly about a disorder that directly involves fertility and reproductive health is something that still invites controversy and presents a challenge. This lack of discussion and shame are major reasons why this condition often goes undiagnosed, which can be extremely debilitating for the sufferer.

Endometriosis can begin around the same time as the first period which may lead a person to think a high level of pain is “normal” for them, when it could actually be caused by endometriosis or by another medical condition. Another reason a person might not recognise the symptoms of endometriosis as anything other than those commonly prevalent around menstruation, is that they are often cyclical, meaning they occur at the same time as the period.

What are the symptoms and when do they usually start?

Symptoms of endometriosis generally develop before the age of 30 and can include any of the following: heavy periods, painful menstrual cramps, pain during or after sex, painful bowel movements and urination, pain in the abdomen or lower back that can last throughout the cycle, and difficulty getting pregnant. Should you experience any of these, it is always important to speak to a doctor.

What causes it?

It is still unclear exactly why endometriosis occurs; but oestrogen production, genes, and the immune system are all thought to play a role in the development of this condition. There is evidence that endometriosis can be passed down through the genes, meaning a person may be more likely to have it if someone in their biological family does.

Additionally, someone may also be more likely to develop endometriosis if they reproduce later in life, or not at all. Many people with endometriosis are informally diagnosed and treated based on their symptoms, but in more severe cases, an official diagnosis of endometriosis can be confirmed with a simple laparoscopic surgery

Does it cause any complications?

Infertility is a common complication of endometriosis, and can cause distress to many, but it can often be avoided if the condition is treated early. In order for the sufferers to gain a better quality of life and take control of their pain, we need ensure people can better recognise their symptoms to receive an earlier diagnosis of this. For this reason, we need to raise awareness of this rarely talked about disorder and make conversations about endometriosis the norm.

Anna Druet is a research scientist at Clue.

'ENDO WHAT?' a documentary exploring the condition, premieres at 7pm on 21 March at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square, London. Tickets are available here. The £10 ticket cost goes toward the film's advocacy and education efforts in the UK and around the world.

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