When couples start their family, they have many dreams. Subsequently many of them, if not all, plan to extend their family to give a sense of accomplishment. That is a journey from being couples to being parents. But unfortunately, in some couples the journey is not smooth and some of them have to struggle a lot for it. Yes, you are right. We are talking about difficulty to conceive, popularly known as “Infertility”.
To achieve successful pregnancy, there must be production of sperms, transport of them and proper deposition of them into the vagina by the male partner. In female partner, the deposited perms must travel through vagina and uterus to reach the Fallopian tubes (the tubes that are attached to the both sides of the uterus) where the sperms must meet the egg (ovum). The ovum is produced by the ovary and released into the abdomen at the time of ovulation (rupture of the surface of ovary to release the ovum). That ovum must be taken by the tube and thus inside the tube an embryo (earliest form of the baby) is formed, which then travels through the tube into the uterus and the uterus attaches the embryo firmly with it and thus the pregnancy starts. So, if there is defect in any one of them there will be difficulty in achieving pregnancy.
Perhaps you have heard that infertility may be due to problems in male (defect in production, transport or deposition of sperms) or female (defect in ovaries or ovulation, bock in the tubes and defects in the uterus). But sometimes there may be more than one problems in either of the couples or apparently no reason is found (everything is normal, so pregnancy depends on chance factor). To clarify the latter, in normal healthy couples with regular unprotected timely intercourse, the chance of pregnancy in one menstrual cycle is only 15%, so it may be matter of time for some couples to conceive. But another important reason for infertility in female is endometriosis.
What is endometriosis?
Endometrium is the inner lining of the uterus. It responds to hormones secreted by the ovaries during normal menstrual cycle. It tends to thicken from the time of ovulation (as described above) and if pregnancy occurs, it continues to grow and supports the embryo to help in continuing pregnancy. If pregnancy does not occur, it is shed off outside the body and is seen as “menstrual Bleeding” or “Period”. Unfortunately in some women, the endometrium may be present outside the normal position. That condition is called endometriosis. It is commonly present around the ovaries, tubes, surrounding the uterus (outside normal lining) but may be present anywhere in the body (even in lungs, urinary system and rectum). As this endometrium (outside the uterus lining) also responds to the hormones in the same way as normal endometrium (that lines the uterus), there will be bleeding around this abnormal endometrium at the time of menstruation. But this bleeding, unlike normal menstrual bleeding cannot come outside the body and so the blood accumulates and forms a chocolate coloured material (old blood is chocolate coloured) and leads to adhesion between organs. Adhesion is a condition where different organs of our body attaches abnormally with each other leading to various problems. Sometimes this chocolate coloured blood may be surrounded by a membrane formed by body tissue and is then called “Chocolate Cyst” that is found around the ovaries.
What is the reason for endometriosis?
Unfortunately, despite extensive research throughout the world, the reason for endometriosis is not known. It is said to be due to some genetic factors or some environmental factors. Sometimes, delaying pregnancy is stated as the reason. In some women, however, it is caused by backward flow of menstrual blood (that enters into the tubes during menstruation). Usually these women have abnormal development of uterus (problems in uterus since birth), so that all the menstrual blood cannot come outside the body)
What is the problem with endometriosis?
Endometriosis usually causes pain. The pain may be long standing and usually occurs at the time of periods (dysmenorrhoea) or sometimes even between periods. The nature and site of pain depends on where it is located. If it is located very deep inside abdomen, it can cause pain during sexual intercourse (dysparaeunia). In some cases there may be pai duing passing urine or stool or bleeding during urination or with stool.
In around 50% cases, it can cause infertility. The cause of infertility is not always properly understood. But it has been seen that endometriosis can cause adhesion and thus can makes it difficult for the Fallopian tubes to pick up the ovum from the ovaries. Apart from this pain during intercourse often makes the woman avoid intercourse. In addition it can interfere with ovulation, sperm transport, meeting between sperms and eggs and also the process of attachment of uterus with the embryo.
However, endometriosis does not always cause pain or infertility. In some women, there may be both pain and infertility, some women only one symptom and in some women no symptom is found but endometriosis is discovered accidentally during treatment for other purpose (like during laparoscopy for appendicitis or during Caesarean Section).
How endometriosis is diagnosed?
Endometriosis is suspected by history of pain or infertility and examination findings. Like some women may have pain during examination of abdomen or vagina by doctors, even sometimes vaginal ultrasound causes pain. In ultrasonography (or sometimes CT scan is done) there may be presence of cysts or adhesion can be detected. But the “Gold standard” of diagnosis is laparoscopy. It is an operation where (“Microsurgery”), making a small opening in the abdomen under anaesthesia, a telescope is introduced and the area is seen through camera in a television monitor. At that time the chocolate cysts, adhesions and condition of the organs can be seen and diagnosed and if there is any doubt, biopsy can be taken. But in all cases, laparoscopy is not needed and treatment is started after the doctors presume the diagnosis by history from the patients, examination and the ultrasonography reports.
Endometriosis is a peculiar condition in the sense that women with severe endometriosis may not have any symptoms, while women with very mild disease may have severe pain or infertility.
How endometriosis is treated, in general?
As mentioned earlier, endometriosis does not always cause symptoms and so, it does not always need treatment. The common reason for treatment is presence of pain and infertility. Endometriosis-related pain is usually treated by medicines or sometimes by surgery. Before surgery, usually medicines are given to reduce the size and to reduce the blood loss during surgery. All these medicines can cause hormonal imbalance and thus deprives the endometriosis tissues of hormonal stimulation and thus reduces pain. As a result, during the treatment, patients usually cannot conceive because of this intentional hormonal deprivation. Unfortunately after stoppage of medicines, often the symptoms of pain come back.
Surgery for endometriosis is usually done under laparoscopy but it needs properly trained and skilled surgeons to do these operations. Operations can range from “minor” (like separating the adhesions, draining the chocolate colored fluid) and “major” (like removing the cyst or removing major organs). The surgery has the advantage over medicines is that it confirms the diagnosis and removes the diseased tissues. But there are problems with risks related to anaesthesia and surgery. In particular, there is risk of injury to intestine and urinary tracts, even with the best hands, that may increase patient’s sufferings. Apart from this, even after surgery, the disease can come back again after few months or years.
What is the cure for endometriosis?
Only cure for endometriosis is total deprivation of hormones. That is possible if the woman attains menopause (permanent cessation of menses). This is possible by natural way (around 45-50 years of age when menses cease permanently) or by operations to remove the ovaries and uterus. Another simpler way is achieving pregnancy, as usually after pregnancy most endometriosis patients feel better in relation to pain.
What happens if it is not treated?
Endometriosis is not like cancer. It is not life threatening usually. That means it will make you suffer in the worst way by causing severe pain and infertility but cannot endanger your life. So, you can have the options of not treating it, even if you have the symptoms. And of course, if you do not have symptoms, endometriosis may not require any treatment.
What is the treatment for endometriosis with infertility?
First of all, you have to make sure that you have difficulty in conception (that means you have given sufficient time to attempt but failed). Then we have to see whether there is any pain or other problems and what the condition of the disease by examination or ultrasonography is. We also have to look for any additional problems like problems in male partner, problems in uterus or ovaries or the hormones (like FSH, LH, prolactin, thyroid etc).
Then we have to plan the treatment. As there is no hard and fast rule, your doctor will explain you the options for you and you can decide what suits you the most, after judging merits and demerits of every option.
You may choose directly for surgery. In that case, you may be offered medicines for 2-3 months before surgery to make surgery safer for you and easier for the surgeon. The extent of surgery varies, depending on the disease status and your opinion. Remember, your opinion is important. You can choose for extensive operation (that may mean removal of both the tubes, that may be needed in advanced disease, leaving only option for IVF for pregnancy in future) or only diagnosis (just introducing the telescope and see) or minor operations (like separation of adhesions or removal of the cysts), after judging the merits and demerits of each options. But remember, you should not have any medicines for endometriosis after operation as most of the medicines (with some exceptions) interfere with pregnancy. This is, because, after operation is the best time to conceive and that time gives you the highest chance for pregnancy. If natural conception (or 1. ovulation induction- giving medicines to stimulate growth of your eggs, or 2. IUI- inserting your husband’s sperms by special process inside your uterus) does not occur within 12 months after operation, that’s probably the best time to consider IVF (“Test tube baby”). Of course, if you had extensive surgery or have advanced age (more than 35 usually), your doctor may advise you to go for IVF directly after operation without wasting the time.
You can opt for trial of treatment by medicines. You must know why I have used the word “Trial”. This is because, during medicine treatment, you cannot conceive. But you will be seen after 2-3 months to see if the disease has disappeared or decreased in size significantly. If this is the case, you can start infertility treatment (Ovulation Induction or IUI or IVF in some cases) directly. But if the disease did not respond to medicines by this time, you may need surgery, the extent of which has been described above.
You also have the options of not treating endometriosis at all. In that case, you can request your doctor to start infertility treatment directly. But remember, endometriosis (even treated endometriosis- after medicines or surgery) can interfere with any form of infertility treatment. It can lead to decreased response to medicines used for ovulation induction, thus reducing success rate(normal success rate is 20-25% in a menstrual cycle- that is without endometriosis). It can lead to low success rate after IUI (normal success rate is 15-20% in a menstrual cycle). Even with IVF (where normal success rate is 40-50% per cycle of IVF), the effectiveness of IVF may be reduced in presence of endometriosis.
What if I do not go for any treatment at all?
Infertility is a peculiar thing. Very few men or women are absolutely infertile. That means they do not have ability to achieve pregnancy naturally. Majority of them are subfertile. That means most of them have lower than normal chance (compared to healthy couples) to achieve pregnancy in a normal menstrual cycle. Often we find that patients planning for treatment and in the mean time, they conceive naturally. That means even without treatment, there is some chance of pregnancy. But that chance decreases in presence of any disease (like endometriosis) or increased age. And of course, nobody usually relies on chance. But the important message is that do not forget to have regular sexual intercourse eve if you are awaiting any test or endometriosis treatment. Of course, it’s stressful situation for both the partners. Stress affects conjugal relationships and lead to many couples avoiding conjugal life. Indeed stress can affect the hormone levels in females and affects sexual performances in males. It’s easier for us to advise you to stay stress-free but is difficult to practice. Nevertheless, try relaxation as much as possible. Think that majority of the couples ultimately conceive by some form of treatment. Have faith in yourself and have faith in your doctor.