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One of the most alarming things for any person to hear is that they have a tumor. Yet about 20% of women have tumors during their fertile years and 50% will have them by the time they are 50 years old. Welcome to the world of uterine fibroids.

What are Uterine Fibroids?

Uterine fibroids are fibroid tumors that develop in the uterus.  The fibroid part simply means that the tumor contains or resembles fibers.  They consist of a fibrous capsule that contains the blood vessels that supply the tumor with blood.  Fibroids are benign, non-cancerous.  

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Uterine fibroids can be just a few millimeters around or they can grow to fill the entire abdomen and weigh several pounds. 

Fibroids usually develop in multiple locations concurrently and their location is the descriptor used in diagnosis.  There are four types: myometrial, submucosal, subserosal, and pendunculated.  Myometrial fibroids develop in the uterine muscle wall.  Submucosal fibroids are found under the surface of the uterine lining.  Subserosal fibroids refer to those located just under the outside surface of the uterus.  Pendunculated fibroids are those that grow at the end of a stalk, like the bud of a flower.  These can grow in the uterine cavity or outside the uterus.

How Do I Know if I Have Uterine Fibroids?

Most likely, you won't know until you're at least 30 or so.  It's rare for fibroids to cause any symptoms before then.  The fibroids themselves don't start growing until age 20 in most cases and they have to get to a pretty good size before they begin to affect the uterus.

The typical symptoms that reveal their presence are dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation), menorrhagia (heavy and/or prolonged menstruation), and leukorrhea (white vaginal discharge).  However, all of those symptoms depend on where the fibroids are in the uterus.  Fibroids at the top of the uterus may increase pressure on the bladder and result in frequent urination instead of the more typical symptoms.  Those near the bottom may produce a persistent sensation of needing to have a bowel movement.  Subserosal fibroids may not produce any symptoms at all, even at very large sizes.

What's the Big Deal Then?

Well, the biggest issue is that some fibroids are big enough and in the right location to affect a woman's fertility.  A large mass that takes up most of the space in your uterus isn't exactly conducive to a healthy pregnancy and can lead to premature birth.  Fibroids can also get larger during pregnancy because of higher levels of blood flow to the uterus, as well as increased estrogen levels.  In some cases, they can even block the birth canal, necessitating a caesarean section at delivery.

Fibroids can also have some nasty complications. Severe pain and heavy bleeding can actually lead to emergency surgeries.  Very heavy bleeding can cause anemia.  

Fibroids that grow against the bladder can prevent it from emptying completely, resulting in chronic urinary tract infections.

Read More: Endometrial/Uterine Cancer

Some fibroids can twist around also.  With blood vessels linked to the tumor, the twisting can cause a blockage that requires surgery to correct.  In very rare cases, cancerous changes can occur in fibroids.

Still, many women with fibroids remain asymptomatic and never require treatment, other than monitoring of the tumors for suspicious signs, such as rapid growth.  So, how does one monitor a uterine fibroid?

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