Clinical Review

Endometriosis: Expert answers to 7 crucial questions on diagnosis

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3. What aspects of the patient history are key?
Dr. Stratton recommends that clinicians begin their evaluation of the patient with pain by asking her to describe that pain—how long she has had it, when it occurs, and which areas are affected.

“Most women with endometriosis-associated pain have chronic pelvic pain,” Dr. Stratton continues.5 “Up to 90% of those have dysmenorrhea or cyclic pain with menses.”10 In addition, women with endometriosis “commonly report having pain with any bleeding or spotting. About 30% of women diagnosed with endometriosis initially present to their gynecologist with dyspareunia.”11

“Episodic pain with menses may become more constant, lasting for many days of the month,” says Dr. Stratton. “Women with dyschezia or dysuria may have endometriosis lesions associated with the bowel or bladder, respectively.12 When women with these symptoms do not have lesions on bowel or bladder, these pain symptoms may occur because of higher peritoneal hormone and inflammatory factor levels or because adjacent organs share the neural networks.”

Dr. Giudice views the history similarly.

“I believe listening to the patient is essential in evaluating the possibility of her having endometriosis. This involves asking her to describe where her pain is, grading it on a scale of 1 to 10, identifying when in her cycle it occurs, and learning what makes it better or worse,” she says.

“It also is important to assess the quality of the pain,” Dr. Giudice says. “Does it radiate, does it limit her daily activities, does it interfere with her relationships, intercourse, work, school? Is it associated with bowel movements, urination, other pain syndromes?”

“Having a pain questionnaire is a great help so that patients have a chance to reflect on these and other questions that help to frame the pain associated with endometriosis when they come for consultation,” she adds.

By determining if pain is associated with menstruation or spotting, the clinician is better informed about the value of menstrual suppression, says Dr. Stratton. “Determining what makes the pain better or worse can help define triggers which, if treated, can decrease the likelihood of episodes of pain.”

“A detailed history of any medical or surgical treatments and their outcome is helpful in guiding future treatment,” she adds. “While hormonal therapy has been a mainstay of treatment, in some women, some hormonal treatments may worsen pain or have unacceptable side effects like worsening depression or anxiety. In addition, some pain—especially that associated with deep lesions—may be relieved by surgical treatment13,14; pain that worsened after surgery may suggest neural damage.”

“As there is an engagement of the central nervous system, endometriosis is considered a central sensitivity syndrome in which women may also have other sites of pain,” Dr. Stratton says. “Thus, obtaining a history about current symptoms or prior diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome, interstitial cystitis/painful bladder, migraines, fibromyalgia, or chronic fatigue syndrome is beneficial.10,15–17 Facilitating treatment for these comorbidities is a key principle in helping women with endometriosis-associated pain, as any condition that triggers or perpetuates pain warrants treatment.

4. What should the physical exam entail?
“An abdominal exam and a pelvic exam are essential in evaluating pain in a ­woman when endometriosis is suspected,” says Dr. Giudice. “Sometimes the latter is challenging in young teens and can be deferred.” Overall, however, “the pelvic exam can give insight into pain triggers, adnexal masses (possible endometriomas) and mobility of pelvic organs. A rectovaginal exam is important in evaluating deep infiltrating disease and to gauge the pelvic pain landscape overall. In addition, palpating the pelvic floor musculature is important to distinguish pelvic floor muscle spasm from endometriosis pain.”

“The challenge for clinicians is to think beyond the endometrial implants, taking into account multiple factors that influence pain perception,” says Dr. Stratton. During the examination, the clinician should begin by mapping the regions of pain in the abdomen and back, “distinguishing musculoskeletal pain from deep pain. Determining whether pains are focused or diffuse is also important.”

Dr. Stratton recommends that the routine pelvic exam be modified because a standard bimanual exam “confuses pain signals from the pelvic floor, abdominal wall, bladder, and other viscera. For this reason, a pain-oriented assessment is mandatory.”

Begin with a single digital examination to map tender areas, Dr. Stratton advises. Then consider the size, shape, and mobility of reproductive and pelvic organs. “A bimanual exam will help identify adnexal masses like endometriomas,” she says.

Endometriomas usually are not associated with pain, she adds, but “they are associated with deep infiltrating lesions. Nodularity along the uterosacral ligaments, limited reproductive organ mobility, and thickening of the rectovaginal septum also suggest deep infiltrating lesions. Importantly, deep infiltrating lesions are the lesion type most associated with pain.”18,19

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