Uterine fibroid embolization is a minimally invasive procedure that is a new alternative to surgery — but is it right for you?

Uterine fibroids are extremely common, benign tumors in the uterus. For many women, they cause no symptoms at all and don’t need to be treated. But if you’re among 25 percent of women for whom fibroids show symptoms, they can affect your health and quality of life.

Uterine fibroids may cause heavy menstrual bleeding or bleeding between periods to the point that you may become anemic or need a blood transfusion. If fibroids get too big, they also may cause pain and heaviness in the pelvis, back pain, leg pain, urinary frequency, difficulties with bowel movements, painful sex and a generalized feeling of bloating.

For many years, the only treatment for their debilitating symptoms was a myomectomy (an open surgery to remove the fibroids) or hysterectomy (the removal of the uterus). But recently, yet another option for women going through the pain of fibroids has been discovered: uterine fibroid embolization (UFE).

How uterine fibroid embolization works

This minimally invasive procedure works by blocking certain arteries that go to the uterus, thus cutting off the blood supply that the fibroids need to grow. Without the flow of blood, the fibroids shrink and symptoms resolve.

The procedure, done under minimal sedation, is similar to a heart catheterization.

“We put a small plastic tube into the artery, either at the wrist or at the top of the leg,” explained M. Victoria Marx, MD, a professor of clinical radiology at Keck School of Medicine of USC and an interventional radiologist at Keck Medicine of USC. “We thread that little plastic tube into the two different arteries going to the uterus and then, using X-ray guidance, we inject some particles that plug up the arteries.”

After UFE, you often are able to go home the same day or the next, as the procedure has a low complication risk. In addition, the recovery time for uterine fibroid embolization is short — less than a week — because it is not very invasive. According to the Society of Interventional Radiology, nine out of 10 women will experience relief from symptoms after a UFE.

Are you a candidate for UFE?

UFE is a well-studied procedure that has been performed on thousands of women over the past 20 years. But the procedure is not right for everyone.  Because the effects on fertility have not been well established, it’s recommended that you evaluate whether or not you want to have kids (or more kids) before undergoing UFE.

“I do this procedure on women who are done having children but want to keep their uterus, and want a short recovery time and a highly effective procedure,” Dr. Marx said.

Doctors still aren’t totally sure what causes fibroids, although hormones, your family history and ethnic background (fibroids are more prevalent among African-Americans) may contribute. They’re common among women in their 30s and 40s, but new tumors rarely grow after menopause.

How do you know if your symptoms are bad enough to warrant treatment for fibroids? If you’re having heavy menstrual bleeding that prevents you from leading a normal life, or constant pain and bloating, it’s time to call the doctor. At your appointment, you can discuss the different treatment options to see if uterine fibroid embolization is best for you.

By Tina Donvito

If uterine fibroids are negatively impacting your life, make an appointment with one of our specialists at Keck Medicine at USC. If you are in the Los Angeles area, schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment.