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Surgical Technique

When necessity calls for treating uterine fibroids

Most myomas are asymptomatic; you can manage them with watchful waiting. When quality of life suffers, however, a range of therapies is available.

June 2008 · Vol. 20, No. 06


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The author reports no financial relationships relevant to this article.

Part 1 of this article, in the May 2008 issue, discusses how to counsel patients who are found to have a uterine fibroid.

CASE 1 Menorrhagia with anemia

G.L. is a 44-year-old G2P2 who comes to the office for a second opinion on treatment for menorrhagia and a 10-weeks–size fibroid uterus. She reports that her periods last 8 days, and that for 3 of those days she changes a pad once an hour. Her most recent hemoglobin level was 10.2 g/dL. Her regular gynecologist has recommended abdominal hysterectomy. She would like to avoid major surgery and asks about alternatives. What therapies do you tell her are appropriate?

Most women who have uterine fibroids are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic; they do not require treatment. In one study, 77% of women choosing observation for their fibroids had no significant changes in bleeding, pain, bothersome symptoms, mental health, general health, or activity after 1 year.1 After menopause, fibroids shrink, and the rate of surgery decreases greatly.2 For women such as these, “watchful waiting” may allow them to avoid treatment indefinitely.

For such women as G.L., however, who develop severe anemia from fibroid-related menorrhagia, treatment is necessary. It also is indicated in the rare case of hydro-nephrosis due to obstruction of the ureter(s) by fibroids, or when menorrhagia, pelvic pain or pressure, or urinary frequency or incontinence compromises quality of life.

The distress experienced by women with symptoms such as these can be severe. In one study, women who chose hysterectomy for fibroid-related symptoms assessed their quality of life as worse than that of women who suffered hypertension, heart disease, chronic lung disease, or arthritis.3

Nevertheless, when symptomatic women were offered hysterectomy as a first and sometimes sole treatment, some chose to adapt to symptoms and stop seeking treatment. In fact, hysterectomy is not the only option. A number of alternatives are available, including:

  • medical therapy
  • the progesterone-releasing IUD
  • endometrial ablation
  • hysteroscopic, laparoscopic, and abdominal myomectomy
  • uterine artery embolization (UAE).4

With the exception of medical therapy, all of these modalities are described here.

6 key points about managing myomas

  • Most uterine fibroids are asymptomatic, require no treatment, and can be managed by watchful waiting.
  • Treatment is indicated when fibroids cause severe anemia and when symptoms interfere with quality of life.
  • Hysterectomy is not the only treatment option; alternatives include medical therapy, the progesterone-releasing intrauterine system, endometrial ablation, myomectomy (hysteroscopic, laparoscopic, or abdominal), uterine artery embolization (UAE), and focused ultrasound.
  • Contraindications to UAE include active genitourinary infection, genital tract malignancy, reduced immune status, severe vascular disease, allergy to intravenous contrast, or impaired renal function. Relative contraindications include large submucous myomas, pedunculated myomas, recent treatment with gonadotropin-releasing hormone agonists, previous iliac or uterine artery occlusion, or postmenopausal status.
  • Myomectomy may be considered even for women who have large uterine fibroids who wish to retain their uterus. Surgical techniques available for abdominal or laparoscopic myomectomy make this procedure safe.
  • Women who have intractable symptoms and who have not been helped by other therapies may benefit from hysterectomy. Laparoscopic hysterectomy has the benefits of less postoperative pain, shorter hospital stay, and quicker recovery. If a vaginal hysterectomy is feasible, however, there is no benefit to a laparoscopic hysterectomy.

Progesterone-releasing intrauterine system

In a woman who has fibroids no larger than 12-weeks size and a normal uterine cavity, the levonorgestrel-releasing intrauterine system (IUS) (brand name, Mirena) has been shown to substantially reduce menstrual bleeding.5 Within 3 months, 22 of 26 (85%) women with documented menorrhagia treated in this way had normal bleeding and, by 12 months, 40% of all 76 women studied were amenorrheic.


You perform an office hysteroscopy on G.L., which reveals a 3-cm, type 1 submucosal fibroid, suggesting, by its size, that the levonorgestrel-releasing IUS is unlikely to relieve her bleeding. What other treatments might be appropriate?

Hysteroscopic myomectomy

Studies show a reduction in bleeding following hysteroscopic resection of submucous fibroids. One hundred ninety-six consecutive women who had menorrhagia and one or more submucous myomas were followed for an average of 73 months after hysteroscopic myomectomy.6 Sixty-eight percent reported “satisfaction and ability to lead a normal life,” and 32% considered results unsatisfactory.

In a report of 285 consecutive women treated with hysteroscopic myomectomy for menorrhagia or metrorrhagia, additional surgery was necessary for 9.5% by 2 years, 10.8% by 5 years, and 26.7% by 8 years.7

Endometrial ablation

In women who do not desire future childbearing, endometrial ablation with or without hysteroscopic myomectomy may be an option. One study that used pad counts as an objective measure found that abnormal bleeding resolved in 48 of 51 women (94%) following endometrial ablation, after an average follow-up of 2 years.8

A study of 33 women who had uterine myomas and total uterine volume smaller than 16-weeks size, and who were followed for a mean of 8 months after Nd:YAG laser ablation of the endometrium, reported amenorrhea in 16 women (49%) and eumenorrhea or hypomenorrhea in the other 17.9

Hydrothermal ablation was used to treat 22 women who had submucous myomas as large as 4 cm in diameter, with 91% reporting amenorrhea, hypomenorrhea, or eumenorrhea after a minimum of 12 months of follow-up.10

Sixty-five women who suffered from menometrorrhagia with hysteroscopically confirmed type I or type II submucous myomas as large as 3 cm had endometrial ablation with the NovaSure System.11 After 1 year, 95% had a reduction in bleeding to a normal degree; 69% had amenorrhea. No intraoperative or postoperative complications occurred.

Uterine artery embolization

UAE appears to be an effective treatment for some women who have fibroids. At the moment, the effect of UAE on premature ovarian failure, fertility, and pregnancy is not clear; most interventional radiologists advise against the procedure for women who want to become pregnant. Although very rare, complications of UAE may necessitate lifesaving hysterectomy, and women who would not accept hysterectomy even under these circumstances should not undergo UAE.

Contraindications to UAE include active genitourinary infection, genital tract malignancy, reduced immune status, severe vascular disease, allergy to intravenous (IV) contrast, or impaired renal function. Relative contraindications include large submucous myomas, pedunculated myomas, recent gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonist treatment, previous iliac or uterine artery occlusion, and postmenopausal status.12

How UAE works

In UAE, a trained interventional radiologist performs percutaneous cannulation of the femoral artery. Embolization of the uterine artery and its branches (FIGURE 1) is accomplished with gelatin sponges, polyvinyl alcohol particles (PVA), or tris-acryl gelatin microspheres under fluoroscopic guidance. Total radiation exposure is equivalent to one to two computed tomography (CT) scans.

Postprocedural pain usually requires pain management in the hospital overnight, but most women are discharged the next day on a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Most women can return to normal activity in 1 to 3 weeks, although about 5% to 10% of women experience a longer bout of pain.

Postembolization syndrome requires admission for treatment with IV fluids, an NSAID, and pain management. It usually resolves in 48 to 72 hours. Persistent fever should be managed with antibiotics, but a failure to respond to antibiotics may indicate sepsis, indicating the need for aggressive management with hysterectomy. ACOG recommends that women considering UAE have a thorough evaluation with a gynecologist to help facilitate collaboration with the interventional radiologist, and that protocols be in place to establish the responsibility of caring for the patient at all times.13

FIGURE 1 Target: blood supply

Arteriogram showing blood supply to fibroid to be targeted during uterine artery embolization.

What the data show

The largest prospective study of UAE included 555 women, 18 to 59 years old, 40% of whom had required time off from work for fibroid-related symptoms. Three months after UAE, the largest myomas were reduced by a mean of 33%. Menorrhagia had improved in 83%; dysmenorrhea, in 77%; and urinary frequency, in 86%.14 Interestingly, improvement in menorrhagia was not related to pre-UAE uterine volume or the volume reduction attained.

Hysterectomy was performed for complications in 1.5% of women: two for infection, four for persistent postembolization pain, one for prolapsed myoma, and one for continued vaginal bleeding. Of 400 women followed for a mean of 16.7 months, 74% were considered a clinical success.15

More than 50,000 UAE procedures have been performed worldwide. Five deaths have been reported: two from septic shock, one from a pulmonary embolus, and two from uncertain causes. This compares favorably with the mortality of 3 for every 10,000 hysterectomies in a similar group of women, which was reported in the national inpatient sample of the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project (HCUP) database of the Agency for HealthCare Research and Quality, available at

Effects on fertility

Following UAE, amenorrhea has been reported in 3% of women under 40 but in 41% of women over 50.16 Although normal follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), estradiol, ovarian volume, and antral follicle counts have been found in most women shortly after UAE, such testing is unable to predict the onset of menopause.

Loss of follicles as a result of misembolization to the ovarian vessels and decreased ovarian perfusion might cause ovarian failure at an earlier age than expected (Robert Vogetzang, MD, personal communication, 2007). Long-term follow-up of women who have had UAE will be necessary to answer this important question.


G.L. chose hysteroscopic myomectomy and endometrial ablation for her menorrhagia. Twelve months later, she remains amenorrheic.

CASE 2 Large fibroids; options other than hysterectomy?

A.M., a 39-year-old G2P2, complains of pelvic pressure and urinary frequency. On examination, you find a 14-weeks–size fibroid uterus. She has not given up hope for giving birth to one more child, and wants to avoid hysterectomy. Ultrasonography shows two fundal fibroids, both about 7 cm in diameter. A.M. asks what treatment options are available for her. What can you offer this patient?

Abdominal myomectomy

Myomectomy is used less often than hysterectomy. In 1999, when one third of the 598,000 hysterectomies performed annually were performed for fibroids, only 30,000 myomectomies were performed.17

As long ago as 1931, Victor Bonney advocated abdominal myomectomy because he believed that the procedure best served what should be the “ultimate goal of surgical treatment, the restoration and maintenance of physiologic function.” Yet women are still being told that hysterectomy is safer, associated with less blood loss—or that myomectomy is inappropriate because sarcoma may be present. Recent reports do not support these concerns.

Managing this pervasive complaint presents a steep cost to society

Uterine fibroids are extremely common. By age 50, 80% of African-American and 70% of Caucasian women have fibroids.1 Fibroids were the primary indication for surgery in the United States in 1997, accounting for 199,000 hysterectomies and 30,000 myomectomies at a cost of $2.1 billion.1 The costs of alternative surgical therapies, medical treatments, and time away from work or family add significantly to the expense associated with fibroids.2


1. Farquhar CM, Steiner CA. Hysterectomy rates in the United States 1990–1997. Obstet Gynecol. 2002;99:229-234.

2. Myers E, Barber M, Couchman G, et al. Management of Uterine Fibroids. AHRQ Evidence Reports. Vol. 1, No. 34. Washington, DC: AHRQ; 2001.

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