People think that it’s like having period cramps, but it’s nothing like period cramps. It’s like someone is trying to rip everything inside of you out. It’s hard to describe the pain. I don’t wish it on anyone,” says Lee Ann Jackson, a New York-based writer and research editor in her early 50s.
Most women accept that menstruation will bring varying levels of discomfort. The pain associated with abnormal uterine conditions, however, is anything but routine.
Jackson, who was officially diagnosed with adenomyosis and fibroids in 2000 while attending graduate school, suffered excruciating pain for almost 18 years. And she is just one of millions of women with three conditions—adenomyosis, endometriosis and fibroids—that have significantly decreased their quality of life.
“Uterine fibroids are non-malignant growths of the uterus. These tumors are composed of dense muscle and tissue, and are found in the uterine cavity, within the wall of the uterus or outside of the uterus,” explains Claudia Guy, ND, who practices in New York.
Some fibroids may not cause symptoms, depending on their location and size. However, those within the uterine cavity, called submucosal tumors, can result in heavy and prolonged bleeding during menstruation.
Similar to fibroids, endometriosis is “a condition in which endometrial tissue has grown outside of the uterus. Endometrial tissue can also be found outside of the pelvic region,” says Guy. “During a woman’s menstruation, the outlying endometrial tissue causes a severe inflammatory response and sometimes unbearable pain and cramping.”
Adenomyosis involves endometrial cells that exist or grow into the uterine wall.
Guy says all three conditions are driven by inflammation and hormonal imbalances. They can bring about severe cramping during menstruation, as well as pain during bowel movements and intercourse.
In addition to pain, Jackson also experienced vomiting and dizziness, extreme bloating, loss of appetite and extensive bleeding—symptoms common to all three conditions. Eventually, blood loss left her so anemic that Jackson needed a transfusion.
And that wasn’t the worst of it.
“When I had full-time jobs, it was always a problem because I was always sick and could not make it into work. And if I was at work, I was in my office throwing up, in pain or not being able to concentrate, so I started freelancing,” Jackson recalls.
The emotional toll was just as profound. Jackson remembers thinking, “I’m dying. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. When am I going to finally die? It’s been how many years? Five years?”
As painful as these conditions are, efforts to eliminate them offer their own challenges.
In 2013, after undergoing a series of ultimately unsuccessful treatments, Jackson decided to have a hysterectomy, a surgery in which all or part of the uterus is removed—which eliminated her chances of having children.
“It’s not a choice I made willingly,” Jackson says. “It’s a choice I made because if I didn’t, I would have no quality of life until I went into menopause. Although that may have come sooner rather than later, I just couldn’t take another day of being in that kind of excruciating pain.”
Jackson is among the estimated 600,000 women who undergo hysterectomies every year, according to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. About 90% are performed to treat non-cancerous conditions such as abnormal uterine bleeding, and fibroids account for 30% to 35% of all hysterectomies performed. The hospital states that approximately one-third of American women will undergo a hysterectomy by age 60.
Since her surgery in 2013, Jackson has not experienced any symptoms or pain. She is grateful, saying, “I’ve heard stories of people who, even with the hysterectomy, it hasn’t helped them.” However, she did have a surgical complication, a hole in her bowel wall that occurred while her doctor was attempting to remove scar tissue.
The possibility of complications that come along with surgery—as well as the possible adverse effects of treatments such a birth control pills, hormone injections and powerful pain medications—have many women seeking alternative therapies. They are often looking for treatments that are non-invasive, have minimal side effects and may offer the possibility of restored fertility. (All therapies should be overseen by an experienced health practitioner.)
One option is herbal medicine.
Guy says that herbs for detoxification, inflammation reduction and hormone balancing include turmeric, ginger, dandelion root, milk thistle, burdock, black cohosh, chaste tree berry, fouquieria and white peony. She adds, “A practitioner can determine which remedies are right for you based on how your symptoms present.”
Herbs are also used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
“Chinese herbs can effectively help break down and reduce accumulation, thus encouraging the shrinking of fibroids, and the reduction and elimination of abnormal endometrial tissue,” notes New York City-based acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist Klara Brown, LAc, MS, DiplOM. “Traditional Chinese Medicine is particularly effective, with the combined use of acupuncture and herbs, in the reduction of pain and inflammation associated with these pathologies.”
Brown adds, “Research has even shown that acupuncture can reduce pain levels more effectively than medication. With acupuncture, the goal is to help restore proper blood and energy flow in the body.” She says that acupuncture can help reestablish hormonal regulation, a key factor that underlies all three conditions. Some practitioners take a combined approach.
At Women’s Holistic Healing in Westwood, New Jersey, Trish DeTura, CNM, MS, offers a combination of gentle bodywork techniques and simple breathwork to help align the pelvis and support the pelvic floor. DeTura also performs intravaginal assessments by having the client “perform a pelvic squeeze or ‘Kegel’ exercise around my finger in order to make note of internal pelvic trigger points and tension patterns.”
The road to recovery for the many women suffering from gynecological conditions is not simple or easy. However, natural alternative therapies offer many women options to promote balance and bring about healing.