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What Is Endometriosis?

Endometriosis is a chronic estrogen dependent disease that can cause incapacitating pain, organ failure, infertility, and other severe medical consequences if not adequately treated.  It was described in medical literature more than 300 years ago and was even alluded to in ancient medical texts from nearly 4,000 years ago. And, far from being a rare disease,  it’s estimated that as many as 200 million women and pubescent girls from around the world have endometriosis.

For centuries the symptoms of endometriosis have been dismissed as a supposedly normal part of womanhood, nothing more than painful periods or cramps. However, endometriosis is a serious disease which can lead to serious medical consequences if inadequately treated. In fact, endometriosis actually shares many features with non-fatal cancers, such as the ability to metastasize throughout the entire body, potentially causing irreparable damage and disability. Recently, one study even cited endometriosis as one of the top ten most painful medical conditions. While it’s true that extreme, incapacitating pain with menstruation is one of the most common symptoms of endometriosis, it can also cause chronic and disabling pain in essentially any region of the body and at any time during the month. Subfertility/infertility, excruciating pain during sexual intercourse, silent kidney loss, searing lower back, hip and leg pain, and severe bowel and bladder dysfunction are among other symptoms experienced by women with endometriosis.

Endometriosis develops when endometrial-like cells similar to those lining the inside of the uterus (endometrium) begin growing in other areas or organs of the body.

Like many other diseases, endometriosis can be a chronic condition, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe. In an attempt to distinguish these different phenotypes of endometriosis, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) established a classification system comprising 4 stages: Minimal Disease (Stage 1), Mild Disease (Stage 2), Moderate Disease (Stage 3), Severe Disease (Stage 4). However, this system often does not correlate to the pain symptoms that women can have. For example, patients classified with only minimal disease (Stage 1) can still experience debilitating pain, while those diagnosed with severe stage 4 disease sometimes have no pain symptoms at all.

Diagnosing endometriosis can be difficult for a non-specialist because symptoms can vary widely and the only way to definitely diagnose endometriosis is by undergoing a surgical procedure called laparoscopy. Because of these and other diagnostic obstacles, unfortunately many women and girls with endometriosis experience an average of about 6-10 years delay before being accurately diagnosed.

While theories abound, the causes of endometriosis are unknown and, sadly, there is still no cure.

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