Endometriosis is a relatively common condition that affects more than 10% of Australian women.
Symptoms are variable and diagnosis can sometimes take a long time, but treatment is available. As some preliminary scientific evidence shows, medicinal cannabis may be one such treatment option.
What is endometriosis?
Endometriosis is an inflammatory and often painful condition where tissue similar to that which grows in the uterus starts to grow elsewhere in the body, potentially forming cysts, lesions and nodules on other tissue. Typically, these start to appear on a woman’s reproductive organs around the pelvis (commonly the peritoneum), however it has been known to form in other places. For example, the lungs, bladder, bowel, muscles and brain.
Symptoms can affect a diverse range of women in their reproductive years (even teenagers), but due to the invisible nature of the disease and its difficulty to detect, there is often a lag between first symptoms and diagnosis – as much as eight years. Getting a definitive diagnosis may take multiple trips to the doctor and some minor surgeries.
The four stages of endometriosis
Endometriosis can be categorised into four stages of increasing severity:
- Minimal (Stage I): Tissue comes in small patches, lesions or inflammation.
- Mild (Stage II): Growth is more extensive, but there’s still limited infiltration of the organs.
- Moderate (Stage III): The disease may be more widespread and has started to infiltrate organs, commonly those around the pelvis.
- Severe (Stage IV): The disease is now affecting organs and potentially distorting the anatomy, with extensive adhesions.
What are the symptoms of endometriosis?
Endometriosis can cause a variety of symptoms depending on where in the body it is located. However, we know it most commonly causes or exacerbates:
- Period troubles, including painful periods, abnormal bleeding, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS) mood fluctuations.
- Stomach and digestive trouble, including bloating, constipation, IBS-like fluctuations, and diarrhoea.
- Painful intercourse.
- Tiredness and low energy.
- Pain in other areas, such as the back.
What causes endometriosis?
Unfortunately, the cause of endometriosis is not fully known. That said, the body of research is still growing, so we learn a little bit more with each new study
As the science community’s knowledge stands, endometriosis is believed to have strong genetic links – that is, if a sister or mother develops endometriosis, it’s more likely to develop in a family member. But it will likely involve a number of factors, including genetics as mentioned and a person’s environment.
Common treatment for endometriosis
To say with certainty that someone has developed endometriosis, doctors may want to perform a laparoscopy, also known as keyhole surgery. Indeed, this type of surgery can also be used to remove the endometriosis as well.
You may also be able to try other treatment options while waiting for surgery, including:
- Hormone therapy, for example birth control. As endometriosis is often associated with periods, hormone therapy can ease some symptoms.
- Painkillers such as ibuprofen (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory) can also relieve some of the discomfort and pain associated with the disease.
Your doctor may recommend other types of surgery on an individual basis, based on your unique conditions and the severity of your disease. These could include a laparotomy, hysterectomy or oophorectomy.
Treating endometriosis with medicinal cannabis
Throughout the world, cannabis has been used as a treatment for discomfort and pain for thousands of years. Now, research is beginning to suggest it may have uses in modern medicine, too.
In an Australian study, researchers surveyed women aged 18 to 45 who had surgically confirmed endometriosis to identify whether self management of symptoms (including the use of cannabis) had any known benefits. Of the numerous techniques these women used – which also included yoga, breathing and heat – cannabis was ranked as most effective. Respondents said it reduced their symptoms of pain, nausea and vomiting, gastrointestinal symptoms, sleeplessness, and depression and anxiety. What was also interesting about the survey participants’ responses is that 56% of them said they reduced their use of other medication by half or more as well. Source 1, Source 2
Medicinal cannabis may also have benefits for chronic pain, a condition that has multiple causes – one of which is endometriosis. For instance, a collection of US researchers surveyed over 1,000 people who had been taking medicinal cannabis for chronic pain, of which menstrual pain was a leading symptom. Respondents on average noted that the pain relief they felt from using cannabis was nearly 75 out of 100, where 100 meant ‘complete relief’ and zero ‘no relief’. For more information, see our Chronic Pain page.