Thanks to celebrity advocates like Padma Lakshi, Lena Dunham, and Julianne Hough, you've probably heard of endometriosis before, and are at least somewhat familiar with the condition. But what do you really know about what it's like to live with endometriosis? Like, does the condition feel painful? Does it cause stress? Does endometriosis make you feel tired? The most basic answer to all of these questions is yes (though the specifics differ from person to person), but according to new research, as far as endometriosis fatigue goes, doctors apparently have a habit of overlooking the symptom, and as a result, many women don't receive the treatment or care that they really need.
In case you need a quick refresher on what endometriosis actually is, it's a condition of the uterus wherein the tissue that usually grows inside the uterus grows on the outside, which results in pain and inflammation. According to the Endometriosis Foundation of America, the condition affects about 200 million women around the world, which is really no small number. And while it's great that celebs like Dunham and Hough continuously work to bring awareness to this very painful condition, it's not so great that one of the major symptoms of endometriosis, fatigue, is apparently overlooked pretty often in the medical community.
To some degree, it makes sense, because first of all, everyone goes through slumps of exhaustion from time to time, but more importantly, fatigue is a really common symptom of a lot of different conditions. Seriously, when you look at Mayo Clinic's "Fatigue Causes" page, it lists more than two dozen conditions — and no, endometriosis isn't one of them.
But a new international study shows that chronic fatigue isn't just a common sign of endometriosis; it's also an "underestimated symptom."
The study, which took place between 2010 and 2016 and has now been published in the journal Human Reproduction, looked at over 1,100 women from Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, half of whom had endometriosis, and half of whom didn't. The researchers gave these women a questionnaire that asked them to talk about various lifestyle factors related to their health (including questions about fatigue and insomnia), quality of life, medical and family histories, and mental health disorders.
According to a press release on the research in EurekAlert! Science News, the study found that over half of the women with endometriosis "suffered from frequent fatigue," compared to only about 20 percent of the women in the research who didn't have the condition. What's more, women who experienced fatigue with their endometriosis were found to have more than a "seven-fold increase in insomnia, a four-fold increase in depression, a two-fold increase in pain and a nearly 1.5-fold increase in occupational stress." In other words, it's not just fatigue on its own that can be so debilitating for women with endometriosis; that fatigue can potentially, according to these findings, lead to insomnia, mental health issues, and a whole lot of stress.
Professor Brigitte Leeners, a lead researcher on the study and the deputy head of the Department of Reproductive Endocrinology at the University Hospital Zurich in Switzerland, said in a statement,
These findings suggest that endometriosis has an effect on fatigue that is independent of other factors and that cannot be attributed to symptoms of the disease.
Although chronic fatigue is known to be one of the most debilitating symptoms of endometriosis, it is not widely discussed and few large studies have investigated it.
According to Leeners, addressing fatigue as a significant symptom of endometriosis is necessary in both diagnosis and treatment, "in order to improve the quality of life for women with this condition."
While Leeners and her team aren't quite sure why fatigue is such a prevalent symptom of endometriosis, their theory is that "the endometrial lesions may be causing inflammation that activates the immune system," per EurekAlert! Science News. Basically, when the immune system is activated in this way, the study's press release explained, these proteins called cytokines are involved, and apparently, those proteins "have been shown to play a role in fatigue symptoms."
It's also important to note some of the limitations of this study, which are mainly related to the fact that the women's answers on the questionnaire were, of course, subjective. To that point, EurekAlert! Science News explained, it's possible that people may not accurately remember exactly how they felt in the last six months (which is what they were asked to describe in the questionnaire).
Even so, the fact that endometriosis research doesn't receive a ton of federal funding, and therefore there aren't that many studies out there on the condition, any and all new lines of research are extremely important in spreading awareness throughout the medical community, and helping women find the treatment they really need. Here's to hoping this is just one of many studies that can continue to shed light on this debilitating condition.