Diagnosis

Uterine fibroids are frequently found incidentally during a routine pelvic exam. Your doctor may feel irregularities in the shape of your uterus, suggesting the presence of fibroids. If you have symptoms of uterine fibroids, you doctor may order these tests:

  • Ultrasound. If confirmation is needed, your doctor may order an ultrasound. It uses sound waves to get a picture of your uterus to confirm the diagnosis and to map and measure fibroids. A doctor or technician moves the ultrasound device (transducer) over your abdomen (transabdominal) or places it inside your vagina (transvaginal) to get images of your uterus.
  • Lab tests. If you have abnormal menstrual bleeding, your doctor may order other tests to investigate potential causes. These might include a complete blood count (CBC) to determine if you have anemia because of chronic blood loss and other blood tests to rule out bleeding disorders or thyroid problems.

Other imaging tests

If traditional ultrasound doesn't provide enough information, your doctor may order other imaging studies, such as:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This imaging test can show the size and location of fibroids, identify different types of tumors and help determine appropriate treatment options.
  • Hysterosonography. Hysterosonography (his-tur-o-suh-NOG-ruh-fee), also called a saline infusion sonogram, uses sterile saline to expand the uterine cavity, making it easier to get images of submucosal fibroids and the endometrium.
  • Hysterosalpingography. Hysterosalpingography (his-tur-o-sal-ping-GOG-ruh-fee) uses a dye to highlight the uterine cavity and fallopian tubes on X-ray images. Your doctor may recommend it if infertility is a concern. In addition to revealing fibroids, it can help your doctor determine if your fallopian tubes are open.
  • Hysteroscopy. For this, your doctor inserts a small, lighted telescope called a hysteroscope through your cervix into your uterus. Your doctor then injects saline into your uterus, expanding the uterine cavity and allowing your doctor to examine the walls of your uterus and the openings of your fallopian tubes.

Treatment

There's no single best approach to uterine fibroid treatment — many treatment options exist. If you have symptoms, talk with your doctor about options for symptom relief.

Watchful waiting

Many women with uterine fibroids experience no signs or symptoms, or only mildly annoying signs and symptoms that they can live with. If that's the case for you, watchful waiting could be the best option.

Fibroids aren't cancerous. They rarely interfere with pregnancy. They usually grow slowly — or not at all — and tend to shrink after menopause, when levels of reproductive hormones drop.

Medications

Medications for uterine fibroids target hormones that regulate your menstrual cycle, treating symptoms such as heavy menstrual bleeding and pelvic pressure. They don't eliminate fibroids, but may shrink them. Medications include:

  • Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (Gn-RH) agonists. Medications called Gn-RH agonists (Lupron, Synarel, others) treat fibroids by blocking the production of estrogen and progesterone, putting you into a temporary postmenopausal state. As a result, menstruation stops, fibroids shrink and anemia often improves. Your doctor may prescribe a Gn-RH agonist to shrink the size of your fibroids before a planned surgery.

    Many women have significant hot flashes while using Gn-RH agonists. Gn-RH agonists typically are used for no more than three to six months because symptoms return when the medication is stopped and long-term use can cause loss of bone.

  • Progestin-releasing intrauterine device (IUD). A progestin-releasing IUD can relieve heavy bleeding caused by fibroids. A progestin-releasing IUD provides symptom relief only and doesn't shrink fibroids or make them disappear. It also prevents pregnancy.
  • Tranexamic acid (Lysteda). This nonhormonal medication is taken to ease heavy menstrual periods. It's taken only on heavy bleeding days.
  • Other medications. Your doctor might recommend other medications. For example, oral contraceptives or progestins can help control menstrual bleeding, but they don't reduce fibroid size.

    Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which are not hormonal medications, may be effective in relieving pain related to fibroids, but they don't reduce bleeding caused by fibroids. Your doctor may also suggest that you take vitamins and iron if you have heavy menstrual bleeding and anemia.

Noninvasive procedure

MRI-guided focused ultrasound surgery (FUS) is:

  • A noninvasive treatment option for uterine fibroids that preserves your uterus, requires no incision and is done on an outpatient basis.
  • Performed while you're inside an MRI scanner equipped with a high-energy ultrasound transducer for treatment. The images give your doctor the precise location of the uterine fibroids. When the location of the fibroid is targeted, the ultrasound transducer focuses sound waves (sonications) into the fibroid to heat and destroy small areas of fibroid tissue.
  • Newer technology, so researchers are learning more about the long-term safety and effectiveness. But so far data collected show that FUS for uterine fibroids is safe and effective.

Minimally invasive procedures

Certain procedures can destroy uterine fibroids without actually removing them through surgery. They include:

  • Uterine artery embolization. Small particles (embolic agents) are injected into the arteries supplying the uterus, cutting off blood flow to fibroids, causing them to shrink and die. This technique can be effective in shrinking fibroids and relieving the symptoms they cause. Complications may occur if the blood supply to your ovaries or other organs is compromised.
  • Myolysis. In this laparoscopic procedure, radiofrequency energy, an electric current or laser destroys the fibroids and shrinks the blood vessels that feed them. A similar procedure called cryomyolysis freezes the fibroids.
  • Laparoscopic or robotic myomectomy. In a myomectomy, your surgeon removes the fibroids, leaving the uterus in place. If the fibroids are few in number, you and your doctor may opt for a laparoscopic or robotic procedure, which uses slender instruments inserted through small incisions in your abdomen to remove the fibroids from your uterus. The fibroids can be removed through those same small incisions by breaking them into smaller pieces, a process called morcellation, or one incision can be extended to remove whole fibroids.

    Your doctor views your abdominal area on a monitor using a small camera attached to one of the instruments. Robotic myomectomy gives your surgeon a magnified, 3-D view of your uterus, offering more precision, flexibility and dexterity than is possible using some other techniques.

  • Hysteroscopic myomectomy. This procedure may be an option if the fibroids are contained inside the uterus (submucosal). Your surgeon accesses and removes fibroids using instruments inserted through your vagina and cervix into your uterus.
  • Endometrial ablation. This treatment, performed with a specialized instrument inserted into your uterus, uses heat, microwave energy, hot water or electric current to destroy the lining of your uterus, either ending menstruation or reducing your menstrual flow.

    Typically, endometrial ablation is effective in stopping abnormal bleeding. Submucosal fibroids can be removed at the time of hysteroscopy for endometrial ablation, but this doesn't affect fibroids outside the interior lining of the uterus.

Traditional surgical procedures

Options for traditional surgical procedures include:

  • Abdominal myomectomy. If you have multiple fibroids, very large fibroids or very deep fibroids, your doctor may use an open abdominal surgical procedure to remove the fibroids. Many women who are told that hysterectomy is their only option can have an abdominal myomectomy instead. However, scarring after surgery can affect future fertility.
  • Hysterectomy. This surgery — the removal of the uterus — remains the only proven permanent solution for uterine fibroids. But hysterectomy is major surgery.

    It ends your ability to bear children. And if you also elect to have your ovaries removed, it brings on menopause and the question of whether you'll take hormone replacement therapy. Most women with uterine fibroids may be able to choose to keep their ovaries.

Morcellation during fibroid removal

Morcellation — a process of breaking fibroids into smaller pieces — may increase the risk of spreading cancer if a previously undiagnosed cancerous mass undergoes morcellation during myomectomy. There are several ways to reduce that risk, such as evaluating risk factors before surgery, morcellating the fibroid in a bag or expanding an incision to avoid morcellation.

All myomectomies carry the risk of cutting into an undiagnosed cancer, but premenopausal women generally have a lower risk of undiagnosed cancer than do older women. Also, complications during open surgery are more common than the chance of spreading an undiagnosed cancer in a fibroid during a minimally invasive procedure. If your doctor is planning to use morcellation, discuss your individual risks before treatment.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises against morcellation for most women. In particular, the FDA recommends that women who are peri- or postmenopausal avoid morcellation. Older women in or entering menopause may have a higher cancer risk, and women who are no longer concerned about preserving their fertility have additional treatment options for fibroids.

If you still might want to have children

Hysterectomy and endometrial ablation are the only two treatment options that can't be used by women who want to preserve the ability to become pregnant. Before deciding on a treatment plan for fibroids, a complete fertility evaluation is recommended.

If fibroid treatment is needed, myomectomy is generally the treatment of choice. However, all treatments have risks and benefits. Discuss these with your doctor.

Risk of developing new fibroids

For all procedures except hysterectomy, seedlings — tiny tumors that your doctor doesn't detect during surgery — could eventually grow and cause symptoms that warrant treatment. This is often termed the recurrence rate. New fibroids, which may or may not require treatment, also can develop.

Alternative medicine

Some websites and consumer health books promote alternative treatments, such as specific dietary recommendations, magnet therapy, black cohosh, herbal preparations or homeopathy. So far, there's no scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of these techniques.

Preparing for your appointment

Your first appointment will likely be with either your primary care provider or a gynecologist. Because appointments can be brief, it's a good idea to prepare in advance for your appointment.

What you can do

  • Make a list of any symptoms you're experiencing. Include all of your symptoms, even if you don't think they're related.
  • List any medications, herbs and vitamin supplements you take. Include doses and how often you take them.
  • Have a family member or close friend accompany you, if possible. You may be given a lot of information during your visit, and it can be difficult to remember everything.
  • Take a notebook or electronic device with you. Use it to note important information during your visit.
  • Prepare a list of questions to ask your doctor. List your most important questions first, in case time runs out.

For uterine fibroids, some basic questions to ask include:

  • How many fibroids do I have? How big are they?
  • Are the fibroids located on the inside or outside of my uterus?
  • What kinds of tests might I need?
  • What medications are available to treat uterine fibroids or my symptoms?
  • What side effects can I expect from medication use?
  • Under what circumstances do you recommend surgery?
  • Will I need a medication before or after surgery?
  • Will my uterine fibroids affect my ability to become pregnant?
  • Can treatment of uterine fibroids improve my fertility?

Make sure that you understand everything your doctor tells you. Don't hesitate to have your doctor repeat information or to ask follow-up questions.

What to expect from your doctor

Some questions your doctor might ask include:

  • How often do you have these symptoms?
  • How long have you been experiencing symptoms?
  • How severe are your symptoms?
  • Do your symptoms seem to be related to your menstrual cycle?
  • Does anything improve your symptoms?
  • Does anything make your symptoms worse?
  • Do you have a family history of uterine fibroids?