With 20 to 80 percent of women affected by the time they reach age 50, uterine fibroids are extremely common. Despite its high prevalence, there is a great deal of misinformation over what uterine fibroids are, why they occur, what the symptoms are and what role bodywork can play in minimizing this typically painful condition.
What Are Uterine Fibroids?
Also called leiomyoma, uterine fibroids are muscular tumors that grow in the wall of the uterus.
Usually benign growths, fibroids can grow as a single tumor or there can be many – ranging in size from an apple seed to a grapefruit. Below are several important facts about uterine fibroids:
- Uterine fibroids are NOT associated with an increased risk of uterine cancer.
- Uterine fibroids tend to decrease in size after menopause.
- Uterine fibroids are typically diagnosed via palpation during a gynecological exam and confirmed with an ultrasound.
- While severe uterine fibroids may require surgery, there are many other treatment options.
Causes and Risks of Uterine Fibroids
As is the case with most unwanted health issues, there is no singular, clear etiology of uterine fibroids. However, researchers have determined that the following two factors are most commonly involved:
- Hormones – Both estrogen and progesterone impact uterine fibroids. The tumors grow rapidly during pregnancy when hormone levels are high, and shrink with anti-hormone medications or when a woman reaches menopause.
- Genetic – A tendency for uterine fibroids runs in families. If a woman’s mother had fibroids, her risk of having them is about three times higher than average.
- While the cause of uterine fibroids remains unclear, the risk of developing them increases with:
- Advancing Age (until menopause) – As women progress into their 30s and 40s, uterine fibroids become more common. However, they typically shrink after menopause.
- Ethnicity – In the United States, Asian-American and African-American women are two to five times more likely than Caucasian women to have fibroids.
- Being Overweight – Women who are overweight are at higher risk for fibroids; very heavy or obese women have a risk two to three times more than average.
- Diet – Eating a lot of red meat has been linked with a greater uterine fibroid risk, while consuming lots of green vegetables appears to reduce uterine fibroid risk.
Uterine Fibroid Symptoms
Because many don’t have any symptoms, women with uterine fibroids are often unaware of the tumor(s) in their uterus. However, some experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Difficult Menstruation – heavy or painful periods, or bleeding mid-cycle
- Local Discomfort – a feeling of fullness, pressure or pain in the lower abdomen, pelvis or low back
- Elimination Issues – constipation or urinary frequency
- Sexual Complaints – women with fibroids frequently report pain during sexual intercourse
- Reproductive Problems – infertility, multiple miscarriages, early labor or other pregnancy complications
Whenever a woman has the symptoms associated with uterine fibroids, a visit to her physician is warranted. Once diagnosed, uterine fibroids do not automatically require treatment. When deciding on a therapeutic approach, a physician will consider if his or her client is having any symptoms, desires to become pregnant in the future or is close to menopause – as well as the size, number and location of the fibroids. In many cases, treatment is unnecessary. If a patient and her doctor opt for treatment, the most common avenues include medication, embolization, surgery or other emerging high tech solutions.
Bodywork and Fibroids
Whether or not a woman receives medical treatment for uterine fibroids, bodywork may be helpful. This is especially true when principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) are applied via shiatsu massage. In TCM, uterine fibroids generally fit into one of the following three patterns:
- Stagnation of qi and blood
- Yin deficiency with empty heat
- Liver qi stagnation with spleen deficiency
Once the appropriate pattern is identified, shiatsu can be skillfully applied to move qi or blood stagnation and/or fortify the yin or spleen.
In a study published in 2002, researchers from Arizona evaluated alternative medical approaches for uterine fibroids. Upon comparing alternative treatments with TCM, bodywork and guided imagery against conventional treatment, the researchers found an overwhelming advantage in the alternative medical group. Fibroids shrank or stopped growing in 59 percent of the participants who received TCM, bodywork and guided imagery – while only eight percent of those in the conventional treatment group had fibroids that shrank or stopped growing.
Regardless of the type of bodywork utilized, practitioners are advised to avoid deep massage of the abdomen for a woman with uterine fibroids. In fact, any type of pressure that causes or exacerbates pain in the abdominal, pelvic or low back regions should be stopped. Along these same lines, women with fibroids may require extra attention to their comfort level. Similar to a pregnant client, a woman with symptomatic fibroids may be more comfortable in the side-lying position with a pillow between her knees instead of lying prone.
Uterine fibroids are very common and can create severe symptoms. Thus, all healthcare practitioners should have a firm understanding of them. In addition, bodyworkers who include shiatsu in their repertoire have a valuable tool to help stop their growth and minimize the discomfort often associated with uterine fibroids.