How Endometriosis Can Cause Infertility

Understanding the Causes and Current Treatment Options

illustration of ovary
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Endometriosis is a condition where the lining of the uterus (endometrium) grows outside of the uterus. It is an abnormal and often painful disorder that affects anywhere from six to 10 percent of women. More concerning yet is the fact that it can lead to infertility in as many as 30 to 50 percent of those affected.

The overgrowth of tissue is only part of the reason why endometriosis interferes with fertility.

Fortunately, there are treatments that can help.

Understanding Endometriosis: A Primer

The endometrium is the superficial lining of the uterus whose role it is to provide a place for a fertilized egg to implant. During the course of a woman's cycle, the lining will thicken in preparation for an embryo. If pregnancy doesn't occur, the lining breaks down and is shed during menstruation.

With endometriosis, the lining will grow beyond the uterus. This overgrowth of tissue primarily forms in the pelvic region on or around the ovaries. It can also develop less commonly near the rectum, vagina, fallopian tubes, or even in the urinary or gastrointestinal tracts. In rare instances, it may form in farther reaches of the body, including in the lungs, arms, or thighs.

Even though this tissue overgrowth is well outside of the uterus, it is still governed by the same hormonal changes of the menstrual cycle.

As such, it will thicken, break down, and bleed. Yet, unlike the endometrial lining of the uterus, these tissue deposits can't be expelled vaginally. Instead, they builds up over time and forms cysts, adhesions, and scar tissue.

Symptoms of endometriosis can include:

  • general pelvic pain, even when not menstruating

One of the more distressing aspects of endometriosis is the increased risk of infertility. Even women who experience no outward symptoms may only learn they have endometriosis during the course of an infertility evaluation.

How Endometriosis Causes Infertility

While endometriosis is thought to be involved in 30 percent of infertility cases, it is still not entirely clear how they are connected. While it might be fair to assume that the development of adhesions and scarring can directly interfere with conception, infertility can result even in women where there is no obvious obstruction.

Among the known and suspected causes:

  • Tissue overgrowth around the ovaries may prevent an egg from entering the fallopian tubes.
  • Endometrial overgrowth in the ovary may prevent ovulation from occurring.
  • Endometriosis may form inside the fallopian tubes, preventing the egg and sperm from meeting.
  • Research suggests that women with endometriosis have low levels of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), a hormone vital to maintaining pregnancy.
  • Endometrial cysts produce chemicals and other substance that are strongly like to a lower density of ovarian follicles from which mature eggs are released.

    Even from the point of view of trying to conceive, endometriosis can make sexual intercourse painful, if not unbearable, in some women. Moreover, the pain tends to only worsen during ovulation.

    Treating Infertility in Women With Endometriosis

    Treating infertility in women with endometriosis typically involves either the removal of tissues interfering with conception, the use of traditional assisted reproductive techniques, or both.

    Among the most common treatment options:

    • Laparoscopic surgery can be used to remove endometrial overgrowth while retaining ovary function. This is not a “cure” per se as endometriosis may return later. However, some women will experience increased fertility for up to nine months following surgery.
    • In vitro fertilization (IVF) may be an option for some women without the need to undergo laparoscopic surgery. It others, it may be used in conjunction with surgery.
    • Intrauterine implantation (IUI), along with fertility drugs, may also be considered an option for women with mild to moderate endometriosis.

    If painful intercourse is a significant barrier to conceiving, the surgical removal of tissue overgrowth will almost certainly provide relief.

    Success rates vary and depends largely on how far the disease has progressed. Women with mild to moderate endometriosis tend to have greater success following surgery than those with advanced disease.

    If surgery proves unsuccessful in either case, IVF remains a strong option.

    A Word From Verywell

    If you have endometriosis, it is best to have it evaluated if you and your partner are planning to conceive. On the other hand, if you are having infertility issues and have not been diagnosed, discuss the option of having a laparoscopic evaluation with your gynecologist or fertility specialist.

    It’s important to remember that not every woman with endometriosis will have trouble conceiving. If and when you do get pregnant, having endometriosis won’t generally affect the pregnancy. In fact, hormonal changes caused by pregnancy can often lessen symptoms and progression of the disease, albeit temporarily.

    Source:

    Bulleti, C.; Coccia, M.; Battistoni, S.; et al. “Endometriosis and infertility.” J Assist Repro Genet. August 2010: 27(8):441-447.

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