For readers born with a vulva, you’ll know how important bodily self care and vaginal health is. Our monthly cycles affect hormones, bloating, sex drive, and so much more. And then there’s our personal grooming routines, product choices—the list goes on and on.
Self care and grooming are important parts of sexual health and wellness, and as we’ve mentioned before, sexual wellness is much more than how often you have sex. It also includes understanding and monitoring for common medical problems that can affect our reproductive organs.
Endometriosis is a relatively common medical condition that affects up to 10 percent of people with vulvas, according to Endometriosis.org. Let’s talk about what it is, how it affects your body, and why you should be on the lookout.
What is endometriosis?
Unfortunately, issues that affect people with vulvas exclusively are rarely taught in sex ed class. So, let’s start by briefly explaining what “endo” is. Endometriosis is a medical condition that causes tissue similar to the uterine lining, like the type that normally grows inside the uterus, to grow outside the uterus. The uterus, of course, is the pear-shaped pelvic organ where a fetus develops. Uterine tissue growing outside the uterus is called “endometrial implant.”
According to Healthline, endometrial implant, or this misplaced uterine tissue, responds to monthly hormonal changes caused by menstruation. This means the tissue can get inflamed and painful. It will grow, thicken, and break down over time because it becomes trapped in your pelvis. This can cause:
- Scar tissue
- Adhesions, in which tissue binds your pelvic organs together
- Severe period pain
According to Endometriosis.org, this tissue can (less frequently) grow outside the pelvis and on rare occasions has been found on the diaphragm and in the lungs. According to the site, endometriosis affects people aged 15 to 49, but it can start before the first period and may not be relieved by menopause, especially if scar tissue is left behind.
Endometriosis.org also says that symptoms can include mental health challenges like fatigue and mood swings. The site also advocates for more education about the condition:
“A general lack of awareness by both women and health care providers, due to a ‘normalization’ of symptoms, results in a significant delay from when a woman first experiences symptoms until she eventually is diagnosed and treated.”
How do I know if I have endometriosis?
The most common symptom is pelvic pain, but pelvic pain can be caused by a variety of problems. According to Healthline, the following symptoms may prompt a visit to your doctor:
- Painful periods
- Pain in the lower abdomen before and during your period
- Cramps for one or two weeks around your period
- Heavy bleeding during or between periods
- Vaginal pain or discomfort sexual intimacy
- Painful or uncomfortable bowel movements
- Lower back pain any time during your menstrual cycle
According to Endometriosis.org, people with a family history of endo may also be at higher risk—since there is no known cause, genetics may play a role.
Healthline also states that it’s important to make consistent gyno visits for pelvic exams, because some people may have endometriosis without even knowing. This condition doesn’t always mean noticeable symptoms!
What are the treatment options for endometriosis?
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for endometriosis. Pregnancy can lessen future symptoms, but can’t stop them completely. A hysterectomy (a surgical procedure that removes your uterus through an incision in your lower abdomen) may help control the symptoms.
A partial hysterectomy removes just the uterus, leaving the cervix—but again, it is not a complete cure. Hysterectomies are also sometimes used when doctors need to prevent the disease from spreading to other surrounding organs or if the uterus is too large.
Still, symptoms can be managed. Over-the-counter pain medication, hormone therapy, and hormonal birth control can all help manage pain. Hormonal treatment may include estrogen blockers, since estrogen is the hormone most often to blame for endometriosis and its symptoms. Most doctors will try medicinal or more conservative treatment methods before opting for surgery.
If you’re suffering from vaginal pain or consistent symptoms, we encourage you to seek a professional’s help. You deserve sexual health and wellness, and that includes regular check-ups and addressing potential conditions. If you are diagnosed with endometriosis, there are support groups you can join. You are not alone! You’ll definitely want to include your therapist and support groups in your overall care plan because your mental and emotional health are just as important.
Of course, endometriosis isn’t the only thing that causes vaginal pain or discomfort during sex. If you still struggle with painful penetration, you may want to consider a pain-relieving CBD oil lube, a regular lube that makes penetration more comfortable, or therapy to address mental health concerns that cause painful sex.
No matter what you’re going through, you deserve to feel your best. Here’s to learning more about our bodies and empowering each other to get the solutions we need!