Diagnosing Endometriosis

A pelvic examination can sometimes suggest the presence of endometriosis. Typical findings depend on the severity of the disease and where it is located. A normal uterus is quite mobile, but the scarring of endometriosis can make it tender and fixed in the pelvis. There may be a swelling felt on one of the ovaries because of an endometriosis cyst. The uterosacral ligaments are one of the supports of the uterus where endometriosis can occur and these can be felt just above the cervix. Tender nodules in this area can suggest its presence.

Diagnostic Laparoscopy

To confirm endometriosis requires a diagnostic laparoscopy. This is where a small telescope is passed through the umbilicus to gain access to the pelvis. A picture of the pelvis is viewed on a TV screen and the presence of endometriosis and its stage assessed. Ultrasound scans are useful to help diagnose endometriosis cysts affecting the ovary.

At laparoscopy the appearance of endometriosis is quite variable. It can take one of the following appearances:

  • blue or black powder-burn lesions
  • red, blue, white or non-pigmented lesions
  • scarring and peritoneal defects
  • ovarian cysts

The small black spots are endometriosis on
the peritoneum.

Laparoscopic view of an endometrioma of the left ovary. Note the 'chocolate' blood coming from where it has burst.

Visible Affects of Endometriosis

In more advanced cases of endometriosis there might be web-like scar tissue (adhesions) sticking the ovary to the side of the pelvis or the tube to the uterus, distorting the normal position of the pelvic organs. Even if the endometriosis is silent, adhesions can cause pain, particularly if they affect the bowel or the ovary. Stretching of the ovary and surrounding adhesions when an egg is developing toward midcycle will cause pain & make it sensitive during intercourse. Similarly the normal movement of the bowel as food passes through can lead to pressure symptoms if it is stuck down in adhesions.

Endometriosis can affect the ovary with the development of benign ovarian cysts, called endometriomas. These can be as small as a grape or as large as grapefruit. Bleeding into the cysts leads to collection of old, dark-brown coloured blood and this is why they are sometimes called 'chocolate cysts'. A woman may suddenly feel pain if there is bleeding into an endometrioma with stretching of the capsule. Similarly if an endometrioma bursts, the blood spilled will cause irritation and can lead to the development of adhesions.

An experienced surgeon should be able to identify this disease in all its various forms and undertake treatment at the time of diagnosis, where appropriate. This is the most effective form of treatment for mild to moderate endometriosis and should be considered the first-line approach. More advanced endometriosis will normally need a separately planned operation where more time is available to sort things out fully.

Staging of Endometriosis

Endometriosis is staged depending upon the amount present, the areas it involves and the presence of secondary scarring. Staging is graded by the revised American Fertility Society score. Mild disease (rAFS stage I and II) is generally limited to small to medium-sized lesions with variable degrees of penetration. More severe disease (rAFS stage III and IV) suggests the presence of adhesions around the ovaries, tubal disruption and ovarian endometriomas.

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