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The 5 Biggest Myths Surrounding Uterine Fibroids

 

shutterstock_325530068Fibroids are the most common type of pelvic tumor among women of reproductive age. Despite their prevalence, however, fibroids are widely misunderstood. A number of popular misconceptions, in particular, create confusion for women with fibroids who are trying to understand their condition and treatment options. To clear up some of this confusion, we’re breaking down five of the most common myths surrounding fibroids.

 

MYTH: If you have fibroids, you will experience symptoms like heavy menstrual bleeding and pain.
As common as the condition is, researchers estimate that between 50-80% of women with fibroids will experience no fibroid symptoms at all. Many women with asymptomatic fibroids never even know that they have the condition. And, because fibroid tumors are almost always benign, women who aren’t experiencing symptoms may opt to forgo treating their fibroids.

MYTH: A routine ultrasound will detect any uterine fibroids that are present.
If fibroids are suspected, the first diagnostic tool gynecologists employ to confirm the suspicion is transvaginal ultrasound. However, this imaging method doesn’t always reveal all existing fibroids. The size and location of uterine fibroids varies greatly, and extremely small fibroids, submucosal fibroids, and small fibroids that are hidden behind larger tumors, aren’t always detectable through a routine pelvic ultrasound. For clearer visualization of the tumors, physicians frequently rely on laparoscopic ultrasound, which requires inserting a scope through the vagina and into the abdominal cavity provides. Research has shown that laparoscopic ultrasound can detect up to twice as many fibroids as transvaginal ultrasound.

MYTH: Fibroid tumors will become cancerous.
Uterine fibroids, also known as leiomyomas, are almost always benign: in women of reproductive age, less than 0.01% of (removed) fibroids become cancerous. While fibroids typically shrink after menopause, those that do appear in post-menopausal women may be the cancerous type, called leiosarcomas. It’s important to note, however, that – regardless of age – simply having fibroids does not increase a woman’s chances of developing cancer in her reproductive organs.

MYTH: Endometrial ablation is a method of treating fibroids
Endometrial ablation (EA) is a commonly used to treat abnormal uterine bleeding. The technique entails destroying the layer of tissue that lines the uterus known as the endometrium, preventing new tissue from growing and thereby reducing or eliminating menstrual bleeding. While you may have heard EA discussed in the context of fibroids, it is not, in fact a fibroid treatment. The destruction of fibroids that can occur with EA is incidental, and is not likely complete. In such cases, the ablated fibroids will often regrow, since subserosal fibroids – the type that grow inside the uterus and are therefore subject to destruction during EA – often originate below the endometrium layer.

MYTH: If left untreated, fibroids will continue to grow throughout a woman’s lifetime.
Fibroid growth is fueled by estrogen. Accordingly, fibroids will grow and shrink in response to the body’s hormone fluctuations. Pregnant women often experience rapid growth in existing fibroids and may develop new fibroids during pregnancy, due to the heightened levels of estrogen that their bodies are producing. Conversely, fibroids typically shrink after menopause, because the ovaries have stopped producing estrogen. (Post-menopausal women undergoing hormone replacement therapy can expect the opposite to occur, however, since they are artificially replacing the missing estrogen.) Although fibroids do tend to disappear naturally after menopause, pre-menopausal women who are suffering with symptoms of uterine fibroids may not want to wait.

When fibroids are interfering with the quality of life, it’s advisable to discuss treatment options with a gynecologist. With a plethora of treatments available to women with fibroids, including uterine conserving methods like Acessa Procedure, it’s not necessary to endure long-term suffering!

 

SOURCES:

American Society for Reproductive Medicine, “What Are Fibroids? Fact Sheet”, Resources, ReproductiveFacts.org: rev. 2012. Retrieved Aug 26, 2015, from http://www.reproductivefacts.org/FACTSHEET_What_are_Fibroids/

Levine, D.J. et al. “Sensitivity of Myoma Imaging Using Laparoscopic Ultrasound Compared With Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Transvaginal Ultrasound”, Journal of Minimally Invasive Gynecology. Nov/Dec 2013; Vol 20(6): 770-4

Burbank, Fred. Fibroids, Menstruation, Childbirth and Evolution: The Fascinating Story of Uterine Blood Vessels. Tucson, AZ: Wheatmark, 2009. 135. Print.

 

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Endometrial Ablation vs. Radiofrequency Ablation: What’s The Difference?

 

The term “ablation” refers to a process by which tissue is destroyed, typically using either heat (thermal ablation) or cold (cryoablation). Ablative technologies are used to treat numerous medical conditions, including gynecological issues. We often hear of two procedures in particular, endometrial ablation, and radiofrequency ablation, and many people confuse the two treatments. Don’t let the similar names deceive you though: while both procedures leverage ablative technology, they are very different in their applications. To clear up the confusion, here’s a rundown on the defining characteristics of the two ablation therapies.

Endometrial Ablation (EA)

How EA Works
Endometrial ablation is typically used to treat prolonged, abnormal uterine bleeding. It does so by ablating the lining of the uterus, known as the endometrium, permanently destroying the tissue. There are several different methods of endometrial ablation: these include freezing (cryoablation techniques), directly applying heat from fixed-frequency microwaves or radiofrequency energy; and using hot fluid through techniques like balloon endometrial ablation.

In EA, treatment is limited to the endometrial layer, the surface tissue that lines the uterine cavity, and the basalis layer, where the endometrial tissue originates. Destroying the basalis layer prevents new tissue from growing, thereby reducing or eliminating menstrual bleeding.

EA procedures are performed in an office or hospital setting, usually with the patient under conscious sedation. Patients typically go home the same day, and full recovery takes about 1-2 weeks, depending on the specific procedure.

Outcomes
Endometrial ablation is used to control prolonged, abnormal vaginal bleeding. EA is most appropriate for patients that have completed childbearing, who have not seen results from other treatment approaches, and who are seeking an alternative to hysterectomy.

In most cases, EA meets its objective: an estimated 9 out of 10 women have lighter periods or no periods after undergoing the procedure. However, it’s difficult to predict whether a woman’s bleeding will stop completely. Estimates regarding the incidence of amenorrhea (the absence of menstrual bleeding) after EA vary widely from one study to the next, but it’s typically estimated to fall between 20% and 50%. A study by El-Nashar et al. asserted that the likelihood of amenorrhea occurring after EA depends on the type of ablative technology used, as well as patient characteristics like age and uterus size. Regardless, amenorrhea is not a guaranteed outcome. “If… a woman’s goal is amenorrhea, hysterectomy is the only reliable op¬tion,” reports Dr. Joseph Sanfilippo in an update to the medical community on EA-related developments.

It is important to note that endometrial ablation is not indicated for the treatment of uterine fibroids; any destruction of fibroids in the process of ablating the endometrium is incidental. Fibroids that grow partially or entirely within the walls of the uterus (known as intramural fibroids), as well as those growing outside the uterus (subserosal fibroids), are not reached during ablation. Those that protrude into the uterine cavity (submucosal) are sometimes shaved down hysteroscopically before ablation; however, if the fibroid originates below the basalis layer of tissue, it cannot be completely eradicated during ablation and may grow back, following the procedure.

Radiofrequency Ablation (Acessa Procedure)

How RFVTA Works
Radiofrequency ablation (short for “radiofrequency volumetric thermal ablation”, or RFVTA) is a specific ablation technique that is used to treat uterine fibroids in a procedure known as Acessa. In the Acessa procedure, a controlled volume of heat is applied directly to the fibroid, killing the tissue of the fibroid while leaving healthy surrounding tissue unharmed. Once the fibroid is destroyed, the dead tissue is simply reabsorbed by the body.
In performing RFVTA, a scope and a laparoscopic ultrasound probe are inserted through the abdominal incisions. Using the scope in conjunction with the ultrasound probe allows the operating physician to precisely pinpoint the fibroids’ location. Once the fibroids have been located, the surgeon uses a special tool with a retractable electrode array (the Acessa handpiece) to ablate the fibroid with radiofrequency energy.
RFVTA is performed in an outpatient setting. The surgery is minimally invasive: with the exception of two tiny incisions (no wider than 1/4 inch) on the abdomen, there is no cutting or suturing of uterine tissue. Patients go home the same day and return to normal activities within 2-3 days.

Outcomes
Clinical research has shown radiofrequency ablation to be very effective in shrinking or completely eliminating fibroids. The use of laparoscopic ultrasound reduces the risk of symptom recurrence by allowing the physician to find and treat all fibroids present in the uterus, not just the ones that were identified through previous diagnostic imaging. At 36 months post-treatment, 90% of patients needed no additional fibroid treatment. Though objectively measured bleeding at 12 months of follow up decreased in 82% of the women treated with RFVTA, the goal of treatment was not to destroy the endometrium or induce amenorrhea but merely to treat the fibroids.
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In the field of gynecology, ablation techniques can be used in addressing multiple conditions but it’s important to understand the difference between the technologies. Radiofrequency ablation with Acessa is an effective method for treating only the uterine fibroids without harming the rest of the uterus, whereas endometrial ablation effectively controls abnormal vaginal bleeding by directly ablating the lining of the uterus. Their usefulness is entirely related to their objective, and despite the commonality of a name, these procedures are very different in the objectives they serve.

SOURCES:

  1. American Society for Reproductive Medicine, “Endometrial Ablation”, ReproductiveFacts.org: 2011. Retrieved May 28, 2015, from http://www.reproductivefacts.org/uploadedFiles/ASRM_Content/Resources/Patient_Resources/Fact_Sheets_and_Info_Booklets/endoablation.pdf
  2. El-Nashar, S.A. et al. ” Prediction of Treatment Outcomes After Global Endometrial Ablation”, Obstetrics & Gynecology, Jan. 2009; 113(1): 97–106. doi:10.1097/AOG.0b013e31818f5a8d.
  3. Sanfilippo, J. “Update: Options in Endometrial Ablation”, Supplement to OBG Management, Dec. 2009
  4. Berman, J.M. et al. “Three Years’ Outcome from the Halt Trial: A Prospective Analysis of Radiofrequency Volumetric Thermal Ablation of Myomas”, The Journal of Minimally Invasive Gynecology, 2014.

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