Uterine fibroids are the most common benign (i.e., non-cancerous) tumors affecting women, occurring in as many as 70 percent to 80 percent of all women age 50 years and older. Still, not every woman develops fibroids, and not all fibroids cause symptoms. Knowing your risk factors is a good way to reduce your chances of developing symptomatic fibroids so you can lead a healthier, more comfortable life.
Why do fibroids grow?
Fibroids are an overgrowth of tissue in the smooth muscle that lines your uterine cavity. Their growth tends to fluctuate based on your hormone levels, with more active growth coinciding with increases in estrogen and progesterone. Most fibroid growth takes place during the childbearing years and in the years leading up to menopause (called perimenopause). Once you reach menopause, you’re far less likely to develop symptomatic fibroids, and the fibroids you do have may shrink and become much smaller.
Not all fibroids cause symptoms, but when they do, those symptoms can include:
- Heavy menstrual bleeding or abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Pain during intercourse
- A feeling of fullness in the lower belly area
- Problems with pregnancy, including an increased risk of preterm births
- Pelvic pain or back pain, especially with larger fibroids (some can grow as large as a cantaloupe)
Very small fibroids that don't cause symptoms typically don't need treatment. Often, you won't even know you have them until they're found during a pelvic exam. For fibroids that do cause symptoms, several treatment options are available, including myomectomy, a surgical procedure to remove the fibroids, and hysterectomy, a procedure that removes all or part of your uterus. Both procedures can be performed using minimally invasive techniques, with very small incisions.
Risk factors for uterine fibroids
Hormonal fluctuations drive the growth of fibroids, but what makes them occur in the first place? In a recent review of 60 studies, researchers were able to identify the most common risk factors associated with fibroid development and growth. While some of the factors were based on genetics and heredity, others were modifiable, meaning women could potentially reduce their risks for fibroid growth by altering some aspects of their lives or behavior. The risk factors they identified in their review included:
- Older age (women over age 50 were 10 times more likely to develop fibroids than women in their 20s and 30s)
- African-American race
- Family history of uterine fibroids (increased risk up to three times)
- Being in perimenopause
- Being very overweight or obese
- Having high blood pressure
- Eating or drinking foods containing additives or soy (soy was associated with a 2.5-fold increased risk)
- Not getting enough vitamin D
Use of oral or injectable birth control products was associated with a reduced risk of fibroids, as was pregnancy; in fact, women who gave birth three or more times had an 80 percent risk reduction compared to women who’ve never given birth).
Why knowing your risk factors is important
As the list demonstrates, some factors — like age, race, and family history — can’t be changed. But other factors, like obesity and blood pressure, can be changed. In fact, since losing weight can also decrease your blood pressure, you can modify both these factors by dropping some pounds (not to mention the other health benefits you’ll reap). Limiting your intake of foods containing soy, focusing on healthy, natural foods, and ramping up your intake of vitamin D (within safe levels) are other factors you can modify to potentially decrease your risks.
One more thing you can do to reduce your fibroid-related risks: If you’re having symptoms, schedule an office visit right away. Other issues, including cancers, can cause similar symptoms, so having an office exam is an important part of staying healthy and getting the most appropriate treatment as soon as possible. And even if you’re not having symptoms, don’t skip your annual exam. Having an exam every year at The Center for Women's Health makes it easier to identify subtle changes that can be very useful in diagnosing a problem before it reaches a more serious stage. To schedule your exam, book an appointment online today.