Surgical Treatment of Endometriosis
Surgical treatment for endometriosis is usually carried out in one of the following situations:
- At the time of diagnosis for mild to moderate endometriosis
- If medical treatment hasn't worked
- If subfertility is a problem
- If there is moderate to severe endometriosis, particularly with endometriomas
- When endometriosis recurs
Surgery can either be conservative or radical. The aim of conservative surgery is to return the appearance of the pelvis to as normal as possible. This means destroying any endometriotic deposits, removing ovarian cysts, dividing adhesions and removing as little healthy tissue as possible.
Radical surgery means doing a hysterectomy with removal of both ovaries and is reserved for women with very severe symptoms, who have not responded to medical treatment or conservative operations. Sometimes, if there are other reasons to carry out a hysterectomy it is done earlier than this.
Treatment at the Time of Diagnosis
This approach is rapidly becoming standard practice in the management of endometriosis. It is typically carried out where the endometriosis discovered is mild to moderate and the extra time required to do the surgery will be able to be accommodated within the operating list planned. A further key-hole into the abdomen is often needed.
Laparoscopic Management of Endometriosis
Mild to Moderate Endometriosis
The endometriosis spots are destroyed by diathermy, where an electric current is passed down a fine probe burning the lesion. Some surgeons use laser to evaporate the endometriosis.
Fine adhesions can be cut using small scissors. Bleeding is usually minimal and having avoided an open operation means that the risk of subsequent adhesion development is reduced. Laparoscopic managment also has the advantage of needing a minimal hospital stay, it is usually possible to go home the same or following day.
Improvement in pain symptoms following this type of surgery can be expected in 70% of cases, moreso if the location of adhesions divided corresponds to the area of maximum pain.
There has been only one good quality study of the effect of surgical treatment of mild to moderate endometriosis on subfertility. It found that laparoscopic destruction of lesions resulted in a 13% increase in pregnancy rate - equivalent to, on average, a benefit for one out of every eight women receiving treatment.
Moderate to Severe Endometriosis
Where endometriosis is more than a few spots, and in particular where there is more severe scarring or an ovarian endometrioma, there is still the option of laparoscopic treatment in some hospitals. In the UK, it is usually only an option in the larger, central hosptials or where a local Gynaecologist has a special interest in laparoscopy.
The aim of laparoscopy, as usual, is to restore things back to normal. For endometriomas this will mean shelling out and removing the cyst from the underlying normal ovary tissue. An alternative is to make a hole in the cyst wall, empty out the 'chocolate' collection of blood and diathermise the cyst base so all endometriotic deposits are destroyed.
Removal of endometriomas and division of scar tissue can be expected to improve the pain symptoms of endometriosis. The success of surgery in improving subfertility is related to the severity of endometriosis in the first place. It is difficult to give exact estimations, but women with moderate disease can expect pregnancy success rates of around 60%, whereas the comparable figure with more severe disease is around 35%. If a pregnancy does not occur within 2 years of surgery for endometriosis, the chances of success are poor, and referral for in-vitro fertilisation should be made.
This is the usual method of approaching the more severe degrees of endometriosis, particularly where endometriomas are large and there is more extensive scarring involving the bowel and bladder.
Hysterectomy is an end-stage treatment for women who have completed their family and where endometriosis is severe. It is usual to suggest removal of the ovaries, particularly in a woman who is over the age of 40 or where the disease is particularly severe. Hormone replacement therapy will protect the bones and avoid the menopausal symptoms.
Using Drugs with Surgery
Overall the evidence to support drug treatment before surgery is not good. 3-6 months of drugs prior to surgery may make endometriomas smaller and therefore more accessible by laparoscopy, helping avoid the need for an open operation. There is nothing to suggest that it improves fertility rates or pain after the operation, however.
The use of drugs after conservative surgery in women wanting pregnancy does not improve pregnancy rates, but just adds delay. For women who have pain there is some evidence that pain is improved with a course of drug treatment following surgery, but it may just be limited to the period whilst the drugs are taken (as would be expected given the results of studies on long-term effect of medical treatment alone). This may be useful if it helps reduce pain whilst recovering from surgery - indeed it will take 2-3 months in any case for the true benefit from surgery to become apparent, as things gradually heal.
Recurrence of Endometriosis After Surgery
Recurrence risk for endometriosis has been estimated to be 10% per year by one author, another study found it to recur in 40% of women within 5 years after conservative surgery.
There is a 6 times higher risk of recurrence after hysterectomy if the ovaries are not removed. Even in women who have the ovaries removed, there is a small (0.01%) risk of further recurrence, usually involving the bowel.
Risks of Laparoscopy
Keyhole surgery is generally very safe, especially in experienced hands, but it is important to be understand that any laparoscopy carries with it some degree of risk, as do all operations. When placing the laparoscope into the abdomen, there is a small risk of accidental injury to bowel, the bladder or blood vessels leading to haemorrhage - this risk is inherent in the procedure. It is greater if the surgery is more advanced involving dividing of adhesions, diathermy of endometriosis, removal of cysts, etc.
Large studies have found that complications might affect around 1/370 diagnostic laparoscopies and 1/50-100 where more prolonged and difficult operation is necessary. Not all of these complications will have serious implications, but it might mean an unexpected open operation and a longer hospital stay. Complications are more common where there has been multiple previous open surgeries.
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