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Endometriosis treatments and medications

Cropped SingleCare logo By | May 8, 2020
Medically reviewed by Karen Berger, Pharm.D.

What is endometriosis? | Endometriosis diagnosis | Endometriosis treatment options | Endometriosis medications | Best endometriosis medications | Side effects of endometriosis | Endometriosis home remedies | FAQ | Resources

If you have painful periods every month that don’t seem to go away no matter what you do, you may have endometriosis. Endometriosis is a condition that affects thousands of women every year in the United States. 

What is endometriosis?

Endometriosis is a medical disorder that happens when tissue called the endometrium, which normally grows inside the uterus, grows outside the uterus in places where it shouldn’t. Endometrial tissue can grow abnormally on the ovaries, fallopian tubes, bladder, and around the uterus. Endometrial tissue that grows outside the uterus can swell and bleed just like tissue inside the uterus would during a menstrual period, which can cause pain. The most common symptoms of endometriosis are:  

  • Menstrual cramps, often worsening over time
  • Lower back pain
  • Pain during or after sex
  • Painful bowel movements or pain when urinating during menstruation
  • Pelvic pain
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Spotting between menstrual periods
  • Chronic tiredness 
  • Infertility  

Treatment for endometriosis often involves a combination of medication, self-care, and sometimes surgery. There is no cure for endometriosis, but symptoms can be managed.  

It’s estimated that over 11% of American women between the ages of 15 and 44 will get endometriosis, and it’s most commonly seen in women aged 25-40. Even though there’s no cure for the condition, doctors and researchers are always trying to find new and better ways to treat it. Advances in medicine like new blood tests designed to diagnose endometriosis faster are promising and could help change the way the disorder affects women.      

How is endometriosis diagnosed?

The exact cause of endometriosis is unknown, but doctors think it’s caused by one or more of the following: 

  • Retrograde menstruation: This is when menstrual debris flows backward out of the fallopian tubes during menstruation.  
  • Hormonal changes: Due to the ups and downs of a natural menstrual cycle, or genetics. Having too much of the hormone estrogen is often linked to endometriosis. 
  • Surgery: During a C-section, hysterectomy, or other surgery to the abdominal area, endometrial tissue could be picked up and moved. Surgeries to the abdominal area can also cause painful scar tissue to develop that can contribute to endometriosis pain.  
  • Weakened immune systems: Due to autoimmune disorders or certain cancers.  

Any woman who gets a period could potentially develop endometriosis, but it’s most commonly seen in women in their 30s and 40s. Women with a family history of endometriosis, women who’ve never had children, and women with abnormal uteruses or menstrual cycles are more likely to get the disorder. 

A primary care physician may be able to diagnose endometriosis, but OB-GYNs specialize in treating it. An OB-GYN may order additional tests to help confirm a diagnosis. These can include:

  • Pelvic exam  
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) 
  • Biopsy
  • Ultrasound
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan 

Here are some questions you may be asked by a healthcare professional to help confirm a diagnosis:

  • What type of symptoms have you been experiencing and for how long?
  • Do you have a family history of endometriosis?
  • Have you been having trouble getting pregnant? 
  • Are you currently taking any medications? 

Endometriosis treatment options

Once you know you have endometriosis, the next step is seeking proper treatment for it. Here are the most popular treatment options for endometriosis: 

  • Medication: Medications used to treat endometriosis range from over-the-counter pain medications to birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy. We’ll take a more in-depth look at medications in the next section.  
  • Self-care: Many women find relief from their endometriosis symptoms with some simple self-care treatments. See “What is the best home remedy for endometriosis?” below for some of the most effective ways to treat endometriosis at home.  
  • Surgery: Doctors can remove patches of endometrial tissue that grow outside the uterus through surgery. Ovarian cysts that become large and painful and filled with old blood (endometriomas) can also be removed this way. Surgical procedures are often a last resort when self-care treatments and medications aren’t working because they’re invasive and could potentially cause further damage. While hysterectomy and oophorectomy used to be considered the most effective surgery for endometriosis, experts in the field are moving away from this approach, instead focusing on thorough and careful removal of endometriosis tissue. While sometimes necessary in certain cases, hysterectomy and oophorectomy are not first-line surgeries.

The gold-standard for the diagnosis of endometriosis is called laparoscopy,” says Jessica Zager, doctor of pelvic health physical therapy at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and AASECT sex counselor. “Laparoscopy is a minimally-invasive surgery conducted under general anesthesia. The surgeon makes multiple small incisions in the abdominopelvic cavity and inserts cameras to visualize the scar tissue formed by the misplaced endometrial cells. During this diagnostic procedure, many physicians will remove the scar tissue they find in hopes that it alleviates the patient’s symptoms of endometriosis. Currently, this is the only definitive way to diagnose endometriosis.” 

Endometriosis can’t be cured, but managing painful symptoms can be done with a little time and persistence. The treatment methods above can help prevent flare-ups during menstruation. Read this personal essay to learn more about what it’s like to live with endometriosis.  

Endometriosis medications

There are many different categories of medications that doctors use to treat endometriosis. Here are some of the most popular. 

Birth control

Oral contraceptive pills release hormones that help stop the abnormal growth of endometrial tissue outside the uterus. Here are some of the most commonly prescribed birth control medications for endometriosis:  

  • Lo Loestrin Fe
  • LoSeasonique
  • Natazia

Birth control pills, injections, and intrauterine devices (IUDs) aren’t the right treatment for women who have endometriosis who’re trying to get pregnant. Birth control pills may help endometriosis symptoms, but they’ll also prevent pregnancy. Talking with your doctor is the best way to find a medication that won’t interfere with your efforts to become pregnant. 

Birth control pills can cause side effects like weight changes, nausea, mood changes, and changes in sex drive.  

Gonadotropin-releasing Hormone (GnRH) agonists and antagonists

GnRH agonists work by causing the ovaries to produce less estrogen. When the body produces less estrogen, endometrial tissue shrinks and becomes less painful. Here are some of the most popular GnRH agonists for endometriosis: 

Depending on individual symptoms and needs, your doctor may prescribe a GnRH agonist as daily or monthly injections or as a nasal spray. GnRH agonists may cause thinning of the bones,  insomnia, dizziness, decreased sex drive, and vaginal dryness.    

GnRH antagonists work by binding to GnRH receptors in the pituitary gland, causing a decrease in estradiol and progesterone. Orilissa (elagolix) is a daily tablet that is indicated for the management of moderate to severe endometriosis pain. Serious side effects include bone loss, suicidal thoughts/behavior, and menstrual irregularities. 

Progestins

Progestins are a synthetic form of progesterone, which behave like progesterone to help stop the abnormal growth of endometrial tissue. Here are some of the most common progestins prescribed for endometriosis:

Progestin medications can cause acne, weight gain, bloating, and moodiness. 

Over-the-counter pain medications

Over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen and Tylenol can help with the most common symptoms of endometriosis like cramps and lower back pain. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen may cause dizziness, an upset stomach, and headaches, and they shouldn’t be taken by anyone who is allergic to aspirin.   

What is the best medication for endometriosis?

There’s no one single medication that’s best for treating endometriosis. The type of medication you need will depend on your age, symptoms, medical history, and any medications you’re already taking. The best way to learn what medication is best for you is to talk with your healthcare provider. Here’s a list of some of the most commonly prescribed endometriosis medications.    

Best medications for endometriosis?
Drug name Drug class Administration route Standard dosage Common side effects
Sharobel or Errin  Birth control (progestin only) Oral One tablet taken every day at the same time Menstrual irregularities, tender breasts, dizziness 
Lo Loestrin Fe Birth control (combination estrogen and progestin) Oral  One tablet taken every day at the same time Menstrual irregularities, tender breasts, nausea, headache
LoSeasonique Birth control (combination estrogen and progestin) Oral  One tablet daily taken at the same time Headache, irregular bleeding, cramps, nausea, vomiting
Natazia Birth control (combination estrogen and progestin) Oral  One tablet daily taken at the same time Menstrual irregularities, breast tenderness, nausea, headache
Provera
(medroxyprogesterone acetate
Progestin   Oral  5-10 mg daily taken consecutively for 12-14 days per month Nausea, breast tenderness, acne 
Naprosyn or Aleve
(naproxen
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory Oral Taken as directed on the bottle (OTC or Rx) or by your healthcare provider  Upset stomach, diarrhea, dizziness 
Advil or Motrin
(ibuprofen
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory Oral Taken as directed on the bottle (OTC or Rx) or by your healthcare provider  Upset stomach, diarrhea, dizziness 
Danazol  Androgen  Oral  400 mg taken twice daily  Weight gain, acne, bloating 

Dosage is determined by your doctor based on your medical condition, response to treatment, age, and weight. Other possible side effects exist. This is not a complete list.

What are the common side effects of endometriosis medication?

As with any medication, there’s always the potential for side effects. Here are some of the most common side effects of endometriosis medications:  

  • Mood changes
  • Breast tenderness
  • Nausea
  • Acne
  • Weight gain
  • Bloating
  • Headache/migraine
  • Hot flashes 
  • Nervousness
  • Hair thinning

Some endometriosis medications may cause more serious side effects that could require medical attention. If you’re experiencing any severe mood changes, suicidal thoughts, difficulty breathing, numbness, or heart palpitations, you should seek immediate medical advice. Birth control pills have on rare occasions been known to cause strokes, blood clots, and heart attacks. 

This list of side effects isn’t complete. Talking to a healthcare professional is the best way to get a complete list of possible adverse events and drug interactions.

What is the best home remedy for endometriosis?

There are many natural and home remedies that can help with the management of endometriosis. Here are some of the most popular ones.   

Heat packs

Hot water bottles or heating pads applied to the pelvic area will help reduce cramping and relax any tight muscles. A warm bath with some added essential oils can also help. 

Eating healthy 

Eating an anti-inflammatory diet can help keep endometriosis symptoms from worsening. These foods are great at fighting inflammation in the body and help regulate hormone production:

  • Omega-3 rich foods like salmon, flax seeds, and walnuts
  • Magnesium-rich foods like black beans, avocados, and spinach
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Bone broth
  • Blueberries
  • Turmeric 
  • Ginger

Pelvic massages 

Gently massaging the pelvic area can help relax muscles and reduce cramping. Massaging with essential oils like lavender can help promote a calming atmosphere that will lower stress levels.  

Frequently asked questions about endometriosis

What is the best medication for endometriosis?

The best medication for endometriosis is the one that gives you the most pain relief. This may be different for everyone, but a lot of women have success with over-the-counter NSAIDs like ibuprofen. Birth control pills and other hormone replacement medications (available by prescription) are also good for endometriosis. Your healthcare provider can determine if you should try one of these options.   

What foods to avoid if you have endometriosis?

If you have endometriosis, avoiding foods that increase inflammation and/or estrogen levels in the body can help your symptoms go away. Here are some foods to be mindful of:

  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Gluten 
  • Saturated fats
  • Fried foods
  • Refined sugar

What happens if endometriosis is left untreated?

Some women who leave their endometriosis untreated will experience long-term symptoms like cramps and back pain. For other women, leaving endometriosis untreated could result in fertility problems and risk of developing certain types of cancer.  

What hormones affect endometriosis?

Endometriosis is linked to high levels of estrogen in the body. Progesterone is often prescribed by doctors to combat the effects of too much estrogen. 

How can I treat endometriosis at home?

Here are some ways you can treat endometriosis at home:

  • Dietary changes
  • Pain relievers
  • Light exercise/yoga
  • Reducing stress
  • Heat therapy 

How serious is endometriosis?

Endometriosis has different levels of severity—minimal, mild, moderate, and severe. Some women will only experience mild symptoms, and some women will experience severe pain and fertility problems.  

How long does it take to diagnose endometriosis?

Endometriosis can be difficult to diagnose. Many women will experience symptoms for years before they’re properly diagnosed. If endometriosis is the expected cause of symptoms, a laparoscopy can confirm a diagnosis once it is completed. 

Should I take estrogen if I have endometriosis?

Treating endometriosis often leads to a deficiency of estrogen in the body, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that you should take estrogen. The type of hormone therapy you need will depend on your age, individual symptoms, and medical history. Your doctor is the best person to talk to about whether or not you should be taking estrogen. 

Do doctors prescribe pain meds for endometriosis?

Doctors frequently recommend and prescribe pain medications for endometriosis. If over-the-counter pain medications aren’t working, prescription medications may be required. 

Can endometriosis be cured?

Endometriosis is a chronic medical condition that currently has no cure. 

Can endometriosis be treated without surgery?

Endometriosis can be successfully treated without surgery for some people. Non-surgical treatment plans for endometriosis would likely involve a combination of medications, home remedies, and self-care.  

Can a Pap smear detect endometriosis?

Pap smears are designed to detect cervical cancer, but they can sometimes detect early signs of endometrial cancer.   

Related resources for endometriosis