Heavy periods, bloating, the frequent urge to “go”—many people simply endure these common fibroid symptoms as part of their monthly menstrual period. But these are more than minor inconveniences—fibroids can be truly debilitating and affect not just physical health but put significant stress on a person’s everyday life.
“Women have told me they bleed so heavily that they soak through their clothing at night and while at work. They do a lot of things to accommodate the fact they have fibroids, including not leaving the house because they don’t want to have an accident,” says Taraneh Shirazian, MD, a board-certified gynecologic surgeon and director of NYU Langone’s Center for Fibroid Care. “But all of that is unnecessary because treatment is available.”
It’s estimated that by age 50, more than 70 percent of women develop fibroids, which are benign tumors that grow in or near the uterine wall. Fueled by estrogen, fibroids—medically known as uterine leiomyomas—can range from pea-size to as large as a watermelon. Some women may only develop one fibroid; others can develop dozens.
Not all women with fibroids experience symptoms, but an estimated 50 percent do. “Too often, women are told they should just learn to live with fibroids; after all, they’re benign masses,” Dr. Shirazian says. A better idea? Don’t let fibroids hold you hostage.
Here are six symptoms that can warrant a trip to a fibroid specialist.
A heavy period is the most common fibroid symptom. “Every time a woman has her period, the uterus, a muscle, has a mild contraction to try to expel the blood. A fibroid can prevent the uterus from contracting, which can lead to heavy menstrual bleeding because the uterus can’t contract normally to regulate the blood flow,” says Catherine W. Chan, MD, a minimally invasive gynecologic surgeon at the Center for Fibroid Care.
Fibroids can also cause heavy, between-period bleeding that is not part of the normal menstrual cycle. “Fibroids can borrow blood from the uterus and sometimes structures around the uterus such as the ovaries,” Dr. Shirazian says. “By doing this, they develop their own blood supply. And that leads to mid-cycle bleeding.”
To make an appointment with one of our fibroid specialists, visit the Center for Fibroid Care.
What exactly is heavy bleeding? Anything greater than about one-quarter of a cup of blood throughout the length of an entire period is alarming, Dr. Chan says. Seek treatment if you experience this level of bleeding during or between periods. In rare cases, fibroids could become life-threatening. If you’re soaking through a tampon or pad every hour or so, Dr. Chan recommends heading to the nearest hospital emergency department.
Light-Headedness and Exhaustion
The blood loss from heavy menstrual bleeding or bleeding between periods related to fibroids can lead to anemia, which occurs when there are not enough red blood cells to carry oxygen in your blood. “If fibroids cause heavy bleeding, your body won’t be able make new blood cells fast enough to meet your needs,” Dr. Chan says. Anemia can leave you feeling dizzy, fatigued, and weak.
Urinary Frequency and Constipation
Fibroids can grow in the area of the uterus that is near the bladder and intestines. If fibroids grow large enough, they can press on the bladder, resulting in the frequent urge to urinate. Conversely, pressure on the bowel from fibroids can lead to constipation.
Depending on the size and location of a fibroid, the tumor can push the uterus lower into the vagina, which can lead to painful intercourse, Dr. Chan says. Fibroids can also cause bleeding after sex.
Fibroids can get large enough to tip the numbers on the scale. The average fibroid weighs approximately 1 pound. But the bigger the fibroid, the more it can weigh you down. According to one study, the largest uterine fibroid ever reported weighed in at 139 pounds.
Pressure and Bloating
When fibroids grow up to 5 to 10 centimeters (the size of an avocado or larger), they can cause bloating, pressure in the pelvis, and a protruding abdomen that can be noticeable to you and everyone else. “Some patients come to see me because they’re tired of people asking them if they’re pregnant,” Dr. Shirazian says. In extreme cases, fibroids can grow so large that they invade the diaphragm, making breathing difficult.
When to See the Doctor
If you experience one or more of these symptoms, seek help. The specialists at the Center for Fibroid Care offer individualized treatment plans and the latest treatment options including medications, minimally invasive treatments, and surgery. The goal is to identify your distinct life goals and provide symptom relief.
New patients are invited to start the process by scheduling a telehealth consultation with Holly O. Gorman, NP, by calling 646-754-3106 or scheduling online. At this first appointment, Gorman talks with you about your health history, any fibroid-related symptoms, and your goals for treatment. Based on this information, she refers you to the appropriate specialists.