About Uterine Fibroid Tumors

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Uterine fibroid tumors are one of the most common medical problems faced by women — especially those between the ages of 30 and 50. Uterine fibroid tumors are also the most common kind of tumor in women of reproductive age. They can develop in women in their early 20s. Likewise, nearly half of African American women over age 40 have uterine fibroid tumors.

While the prevalence of uterine fibroid tumors may be surprising, even more surprising is how frequently uterine fibroid tumors are treated by hysterectomy — a procedure in which the uterus is removed. Of the 600,000 hysterectomies performed in the U.S. each year, uterine fibroid tumors are indicated in 30 to 60 percent of these surgical procedures.

What Are Uterine Fibroid Tumors?

uterine fibroid tumors
Top: Uterine fibroids are benign (noncancerous) tumors that form on the smooth muscles of the uterus. Bottom: A cross-section image of a uterine fibroid.

Also referred to as myomas or leiomyomas, uterine fibroids are benign (noncancerous) tumors that form on the smooth muscles of the uterus. Essentially, one muscle cell begins to reproduce extensively and independently, eventually evolving into a pale, firm rubbery mass that is conspicuously different from neighboring tissue.

Uterine fibroids can vary in size — from a quarter of an inch, to six inches or more, in diameter. In rare cases, a fibroid can cause the uterus to swell to the size of a five-month pregnancy.

How Are Uterine Fibroids Diagnosed?

uterine fibroid tumors
Uterine fibroids are typically confirmed by ultrasound (left) and magnetic resonance imaging (right).

Typically, uterine fibroids are diagnosed during a gynecologic internal examination; the physician will conduct a pelvic exam to determine whether the uterus is enlarged.

The presence of a fibroid on the uterus is most often confirmed by an abdominal ultrasound. Fibroids also can be confirmed using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) imaging.

Most fibroids do not cause symptoms and are not treated. When they do cause symptoms, drug therapy often is the first step in the treatment. This might include a prescription for birth-control pills or other hormonal therapy, or the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen or naproxen sodium. In many patients, symptoms are controlled with these treatments and no other therapy is required.

Some hormone therapies do have side effects and other risks when used long-term, so they are generally used temporarily. Fibroids often grow back after hormone therapy is discontinued.

What Causes Uterine Fibroids?

The exact cause of uterine fibroids is not known. However, it is believed that genetics has much to do with "why" fibroids form.