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Updated 05 August 2016

SA women silently suffering from uterine fibroids

Women who are suffering from uterine fibroids may experience heavy menstrual bleeding, pelvic pain, back and leg pains and a strange urge to eat clay.

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Thousands of SA women are silently suffering the devastating symptoms of untreated uterine fibroids. These are muscular, non-cancerous tumours that develop in the walls of the uterus.

They most commonly, although not exclusively, develop in women in their 30s and 40s. Internationally, 20% of women have fibroids although interventional radiologist Dr Gary Sudwarts believes that this number is higher in South Africa.

Dr Sudwarts, who practises at Netcare Park Lane Hospital in Johannesburg, as well as UCT Private Academic Hospital in Cape Town, has set himself the goal of raising awareness of the condition, which he believes warrants much greater attention and awareness than it currently receives.

The symptoms include:

  • Heavy menstrual bleeding
  • Pelvic pain
  • Back and leg pains
  • Pain during sex
  • Feelings of exhaustion 
  • Even a strange urge to eat clay

The desire to consume earth or clay is an attempt to replenish the low iron levels caused by heavy menstrual bleeding.

“I find it disconcerting that in today’s times so many South African women are still silently suffering the devastating symptoms of untreated uterine fibroids,” said Dr Sudwarts. “It is also concerning that so many thousands of women in our country, some relatively young, are faced with the prospect of a hysterectomy because of the condition.” 

Read: Fibroids: what are the options?

Dr Sudwarts indicated that more and more effective treatment options are becoming available for women with severe uterine fibroids, and it is important that they be made aware of the alternatives that are now available to them.

“Essentially, when symptomatic therapy fails, there are three main surgical options available to treat fibroids and the choice of which to opt for will be influenced by the type, number, location and size of the fibroids present," he explained.

In some cases a myomectomy, which is a procedure in which the fibroids are removed during open surgery, is indicated. Alternatively, a hysterectomy, where the uterus is removed, may be recommended.

“The latest alternative, which is becoming an increasingly popular choice among those women for whom the procedure is a viable treatment, is uterine fibroid embolisation (UFE). This non-invasive procedure has a much lower rate of complications, is less painful with a considerably shorter recovery time compared with either myomectomy or hysterectomy,” said Dr Sudwarts.

He said the UFE procedure is done with the aid of anatomical mapping using X-rays.

Watch this clip on UFE procedures performed:

"During the procedure, catheters or thin tubes are inserted into a minor puncture wound in the groin to inject microscopic particles into the arteries supplying the fibroids with nutrients, causing them to shrink dramatically. The patient usually only stays in hospital overnight,” Dr Sudwarts pointed out.

What should women do if they suspect they may have a problem?

Dr Sudwarts advised they visit their doctor or gynaecologist and if diagnosed with uterine fibroids, women would be well advised to find out as much as possible about the condition.

“Be sure to ask your doctor about all of the possible treatment options that are available for your particular situation.”

Dr Sudwarts noted that the clinical outcomes of UFE compare most favourably with other treatment options, yet it is a much simpler and safer procedure. It is a recommended treatment in countries such as the United Kingdom where the National Health Service (NHS) promotes it.

“The overwhelming majority of women who have undergone UFE experience significant or total relief from heavy bleeding, pain and bloating. Other problems it can help resolve include a general feeling of heaviness and discomfort, constipation, urinary frequency and leg or back pain.”

UFE is offered at Netcare Park Lane, Netcare Sunward Park and Netcare Linksfield hospitals in Johannesburg, Netcare Unitas Hospital in Pretoria, UCT Private Academic Hospital in Cape Town, Universitas Private Hospital in Bloemfontein and Netcare St Augustine’s Hospital in Durban.

Read more:

Fibroids may raise risk of stillbirth

Women with uterine fibroids put off treatment

Childhood abuse tied to uterine fibroids