Recently published research on Uterine Artery Embolization has shown that it is a good alternative to hysterectomy for women suffering heavy menstrual bleeding or pain from uterine fibroid--benign--tumors.
A 5-year follow-up study of women who agreed to be randomly picked for either a hysterectomy or Uterine Artery Embolization (UAE) showed that 7 of 10 women who underwent the organ-sparing procedure had relief of their symptoms that was good enough to have been able to avoid further surgery after five years.
This is important news because 40% of all hysterectomies--275,000 of them--are done each year because of symptoms caused by fibroids. According to best estimates, another 250,000 women a year undergo myomectomies, in which the fibroids are cut out of the uterus but the uterus is spared. Both surgeries usually involve a stay in the hospital and, depending on the technique used for the hysterectomy, recovery periods of up to six weeks. With UAE, women report returning to normal activity, including sex, within two weeks.
In addition, a UAE poses much less risk to a woman's ovaries if she is under 45. Dr. Bruce McLucas, a Los Angeles gynecologist who performed the first UAE in the United States in the early 90s, said in an interview that the incidence of ovarian failure "in my hands is 3%" in women in that age group and about 5% when done by other surgeons. McLucas recently performed his thousandth UAE. However, ovarian failure occurs in about half of all women older than 45 who undergo UAE.
About half of all women who undergo hysterectomies end up without their ovaries--often healthy ovaries-- because gynecologists continue to scare them into consenting to their removal (or yank them out even with no consent) with talk of ovarian cancer. They minimize the adverse impact on women's health that will result from the loss of their ovaries. Most gynecologists still view the low risk of developing ovarian cancer as outweighing the much greater risks of developing heart disease, osteoporosis, loss of sexual pleasure, etc. from castration (the proper word for amputation of women's sex/reproductive organs.)
McLucas, who practices at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and is Clinical Professor in the medical school there, is now engaged in a campaign to publicize the benefits of the procedure. He will be appearing December 1 on the TV show, The Doctors.
I've long wondered why so many women in their early 40s experience such heavy bleeding. McLucas explained that, "In the years running up to the menopause, we have a domination of estrogen in the menstrual cycle," and estrogen fuels the growth of fibroids, which are present in 40% of women over 40. Many women, however, do not experience heavy bleeding or pain from them; only 10 to 20% of women who have fibroids need treatment.
But those who do must deal with monthly hemorrhaging that can last two weeks and require frequent changing of even the most absorbent tampons. Many become anemic.
"The first major myth about fibroids is that waiting for menopause is necessarily a good option," said McLucas. He explained that because fatty tissue produces a substance that mimics estrogen, fibroids in some women will not shrink after menopause. And, if a woman is taking replacement hormones, the fibroids also tend to grow. Waiting for menopause therefore, may or may not be a good idea depending on the individual woman.
So what is UAE? It's an outpatient procedure done under local anesthetic in which a small cut is made in the upper thigh and then in the femoral artery. From there, guided by X-rays, the surgeon plugs the uterine artery with inert particles.
Starved of blood, the fibroids usually--but not always--shrivel to about half their size, calcify and cause no further problems.
But doesn't the uterus then die as well?
Fortunately, the uterus is fed blood by the ovarian artery as well, and will "resupply the uterus within an hour of surgery," according to Dr. McLucas.
He has also published research showing that among women who still wanted to have children after the procedure, about 1/3 had successful pregnancies.
I had a hysterectomy in my early 40s because of heavy menstrual bleeding, and after viewing this new research, I would have tried a UAE if it had been available to me. Maybe it would not have worked, as is the case with a friend of mine, but given the information I now have, it would have been worth a try to keep my uterus.
Even now, many years later, women who want to try this alternative will very likely need to look beyond their usual gynecologist. McLucas thinks he is the only gynecologist doing UAE in the United States. But interventional radiologists--the same doctors who insert cardiac stents--do them, and so do, oddly enough, some cardiologists.
Ideally, women should find a gynecologist who can refer them to a radiologist who will perform the procedure. After that, the gynecologist will oversee their recovery.
Dr. McLucas predicts that within 10 years there will be at least one gynecologist in each major city who performs UAEs. Until then, women are still on their own in their efforts to keep their precious organs. A good starting place for information is the Fibroid Treatment Collective website, which features Dr. McLucas.