Treatment strategies for endometriosis vary widely, with the primary objective being to alleviate pain and enhance fertility where necessary. However, the confusion and inconsistency in recommendations is alarming. This article reviews and comments on some of the key current management strategies supported by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (ACOG), by way of Bulletin #114 (2010 and reaffirmed in 2022) and Bulletin #760 concerning adolescents (2018 and reaffirmed 2022). In the following posts, we will review other guidelines to give a more in-depth look at these inconsistencies and what you may face as you navigate your journey with endometriosis.
Other internationally recognized bodies have published various guidelines seeking to help clinicians with the diagnosis and treatment of endometriosis. Unfortunately, there is significant discrepancy between some of the recommendations due to the complex nature of the disease and limitations of research to date. Many patients will look to online resources and forums after seeing providers and not seeing results. What they may be surprised to find is that information on sites dedicated to endometriosis are often inconsistent with what is proffered by different guideline resources.
Surgery is considered a cornerstone in the management of pain and infertility associated with endometriosis. The timing of surgery and the type of surgery recommended varies between guidelines. However, it is illuminating to note that ACOG guideline Bulletin #114 states that “definitive diagnosis of endometriosis only can be made by histology of lesions removed at surgery.”
Minimally invasive surgery is highly preferred over open surgery (laparotomy) due to less pain, shorter hospital stay, quicker recovery, and better cosmetic results. However, a high level of skill and expertise is required to perform these procedures, whether it be laparoscopic or robotically assisted surgery. Despite better technology inherent in robotic surgery, outcomes research does not clearly show which modality is better overall. However, the skill of the surgeon likely trumps the surgical tools used. Robotic surgery may be better suited for particularly difficult cases involving severely distorted anatomy due to advanced endo or scarring from repeat surgeries.
The excision of endometriosis is widely recommended for patients with endometriosis-associated pain. However, there is ongoing debate on the preferred surgical technique (ablation versus excision) due to lack of conclusive evidence. Currently, the studies that look at excision surgery vs. ablation have significant limitations, potentially due to variation in the skill and training of the surgeons involved in these studies. Meaning, studies to date may not have been done by true excision specialists and resulted in incomplete removal thereby skewing the research results. This variation in surgeon expertise is a common plight affecting surgical procedure outcomes research.
In ovarian endometriosis (endometriomas or chocolate cysts), minimally invasive excision of endometriomas is superior to drainage and ablation in terms of reducing recurrence of dysmenorrhoea, dyspareunia, cyst recurrence, and the need for further surgical interventions.
In cases where women have completed their family planning and failed to respond to conservative treatments, hysterectomy with simultaneous excision of endometriotic lesions is considered the last resort. However, except for cases in which there is coexisting adenomyosis, hysterectomy is not necessarily required for pain relief purposes. Each situation should be highly individualized.
Medical Management of Endometriosis
While surgery is an effective treatment strategy and helps many patients, medical management currently plays a crucial role in managing symptoms and preserving fertility. These treatments primarily focus on pain management, hormonal suppression, and birth control.
Pain management is a critical aspect of endometriosis treatment. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are widely used for symptomatic treatment of dysmenorrhea and acyclic pelvic pain. In fact, in their article discussing dysmenorrhea and endometriosis in adolescents, without any workup, ACOG believes that the majority of adolescents have primary dysmenorrhea which is defined as painful menstruation in the absence of pelvic pathology and recommends first line-therapies such as NSAIDs and birth control. The question is: without undergoing a definitive workup and assessment (surgery) for endometriosis and knowing that imaging is insufficient for diagnosis – how is it determined they do not have pelvic pathology? Furthermore, ACOG considers those that respond symptomatically to birth control pills and NSAIDs as a confirmation of primary dysmenorrhea, though some people with endometriosis also respond symptomatically to birth control pills and NSAIDs.
Hormonal suppression, through the use of progestins, combined oral contraceptives, micronized progesterone, or Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) analogues, is a common treatment strategy. This recommendation assumes that estrogen is responsible for endometriosis, but this is based on an incomplete understanding of endometriosis genesis and progression. Hormones are clearly involved but, based on increasing molecular evidence, this is not the sole factor in promoting growth of endometriosis.
Birth control pills, specifically combined oral contraceptives, are often used as a first-line therapy for endometriosis-associated pain. This works by suppressing ovulation, which may help slow the growth of endometriotic tissue but has not been proven to induce regression or resolution.
GnRH analogues are recommended as second-line treatment options for endometriosis-associated pain. They work by suppressing the production of estrogen, thereby theroretically reducing the growth of endometriotic tissue. Along these lines, ACOG states that “there is no data that support the use of preoperative medical suppressive therapy,” yet in clinical practice, many individuals are offered these medications inconsistently related to consideration or timing of surgery. Additionally, their level B evidence (second level) recommendations state “After an appropriate pretreatment evaluation (to exclude other causes of chronic pelvic pain) and failure of initial treatment with OCs (oral contraceptives) and NSAIDS, empiric therapy with a 3-month course of a GnRH agonist is appropriate.” It can be argued that this is extremely problematic given that there is no conclusive data to support the use of these medications prior to surgery. Finally, there is a significant risk of short and potentially long term side effects and complications.
Complementary therapies such as dietary interventions, acupuncture, and electrotherapy are increasingly being recognized as potential adjunctive treatments for endometriosis. Quite a bit is evidence supported, but more research is needed to fully establish their efficacy and safety. Thus guidelines do not routinely address such options, leaving patients to their own devices and trial and error.
In conclusion, the management of endometriosis requires a multi-faceted approach, incorporating both surgical and medical treatments which will be variable from patient to patient. In the past few years, there have been some improvements in the amount of research as well as advocacy. Finding a knowledgeable specialized surgeon and care team is of utmost importance. The majority of OBGYNs do not focus on endo, have not undergone further specialized training and generally align with the guidelines set forth by ACOG, largely driven by perceived medico-legal concerns related to standard of practice.. Furthermore, other guidelines seem to differ in their opinions and recommendations regarding medical management and surgery, so stay tuned for more information.
- Find an Endometriosis Specialist for Diagnosis, Treatment, & Surgery
- Why was iCareBetter built?
- What You Need to Know About Endometriosis Excision Surgery
- Bulletins–Gynecology, A. C. o. P. (2000). ACOG practice bulletin. Medical management of endometriosis. Number 11, December 1999 (replaces Technical Bulletin Number 184, September 1993). Clinical management guidelines for obstetrician-gynecologists. Int J Gynaecol Obstet, 71(2), 183-196. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0020-7292(00)80034-x
- ACOG Committee Opinion No. 760: Dysmenorrhea and Endometriosis in the Adolescent. (2018). Obstet Gynecol, 132(6), e249-e258. https://doi.org/10.1097/AOG.0000000000002978