As many as 25% of women of reproductive age are known to have uterine fibroids. But it is hard to say for sure how many women have fibroids in total, because some women with uterine fibroids do not experience symptoms.
There are many options to treat the condition, and how a woman chooses to deal with it can have serious consequences for her health and wellbeing. For example, some people choose to go through hysterectomy, while others may suffer in silence with symptoms such as heavy menstruation (even resulting in anemia) and painful periods.
Uterine fibroids can vary in size, number, and location in the uterus and pelvis; manifestations can be variable, from a complete lack of symptoms at one end of the spectrum – to severe bleeding, dysmenorrhea, pelvic pain, infertility, and dysfunction of urination and bowel movement at the other end. The fibroids may grow slowly or rapidly, or they may remain the same size. Every individual is in a different situation and needs different strategies for managing the condition. Making a proper management plan is critical, so it is advised to have a consultation with a health professional to map out a strategy.
Some fibroid patients have small fibroids, with few or no symptoms and a normal fertility level. Their fibroids are not growing over time. It is unnecessary in those cases to seek medical treatment. Diet and lifestyle changes alone may reduce the size of the fibroids. Even if the fibroids do not diminish until menopause, it’s okay because the patient can still live a long life without distress. (Medically shrinking the tumour is a common Western medical approach, but even as the tumour diminishes through medical procedures, the side effects of medical intervention such as liver toxicity and exhaustion of Qi and blood may cause more damage to health than no treatment at all.)
In other cases, the fibroids are fast-growing, or the patient is experiencing serious symptoms. This is when it’s necessary to initiate effective treatment to shrink or stop the fibroids’ growth and relieve or reduce symptoms. Chinese medicine and acupuncture cause few side effects, and can be used as a first step in medical management.
TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE APPROACH TO FIBROIDS
According to Chinese medicine (TCM) theory, fibroids are abdominal masses caused by the accumulation of Qi, blood, and phlegm. Deficiency of vital Qi is the internal cause. Predisposing factors can include physical or emotional trauma during menses, which triggers the growth of fibroids. For example, I had treated one patient with fibroids. Based on her medical history, she had uterine fibroids for quite a few years. This made her uterus feel like it was carrying a two-month-old pregnancy, but because she had not suffered other symptoms, and her fibroids did not change in size and number, she did not take any treatment. Then last year a series of stressful events happened, including the breakdown of her marriage, the loss of her mother, and the injury of her leg which left a large hematoma. Within three months, her fibroids grew fast, and her uterus size become similar to a six-month-old pregnancy.
She came to see me because she could feel the rapidly growing uterine fibroids. After three months of acupuncture and herbal treatment, an ultrasound comparison showed that the fibroids had stopped growing. Currently, she is continuing with acupuncture and herbal treatment.
Chinese medicine practitioners assess patients with fibroids by finding the patient’s differentiated syndromes according to the nature of their masses through abdomen palpation, ultrasound reading, gynecological manifestations, general health condition, and tongue and pulse reading. There are five major syndromes involved here:
1) Qi stagnation with blood stasis;
2) phlegm accumulation with blood stasis;
3) blood stasis with Qi stagnation or phlegm;
4) spleen deficiency with phlegm;
5) and kidney deficiency with blood stasis.
HERBS, ACUPUNCTURE, MASSAGE
Chinese medicine treatment focuses on shrinking fibroids and relieving symptoms through herbal medicine, acupuncture, and tuina massage. Creating good treatment protocols for each individual is a complicated task that depends on body constitution, symptoms, period cycle, age, and medical history. Chinese medicine practitioners prescribe herbal formulas as part of the overall protocol. Some herbs that are often used for shrinking fibroid masses include Bur Reed Tuber (San Leng), Zedoray Rhizome (E Zhu), Euonymus Alatus (Gui Jian YU), Carapax Trionycis (Bie Jia), Pollen Typhae, and Radix Arnebiae/Radix Lithospermi (Zi Cao).
Acupuncture treatments also need to be individualized by selecting different points and techniques. Some points often selected to treat fibroids include St 25, Ren 5, Ren 7, extra-Zigongxue, and Sp6.
With acupuncture and herbal treatment, most patients can experience relief of symptoms such as heavy menstrual periods, cramps, or abdominal bloating. The positive effects can be observed within two to three period cycles. The fibroid may also stop growing. However, shrinking the fibroid is hard work and requires long-term treatment. I recommend that fibroid patients do mild treatment via herbs and acupuncture over a long period of time. Even if a patient commits to intensive treatment with large doses of herbs and frequent acupuncture, it will not speed up the process of fibroid-shrinking, and may cause vital Qi impairment in the meantime.
Abdominal massage can help restore a healthy uterus and ovaries. I often teach self-massage to my fibroid patients during consultation. Our clinic also provides a herbal cream, A Wei Gao, which has a targeted effect for fibroid treatment when paired with self-massage. Self-massage is a good method to keep pelvic blood flow smooth and to relieve the blockage of Qi. It is a simple technique, and everybody is able to learn it. The technique involves rubbing and kneading on the abdomen to relieve tension spots. You can knead with your palms or fingers around the navel with both hands clockwise and counter-clockwise. Then pat your abdomen, lower back, sacrum, hips, and afterwards proceed to the quadriceps, hamstrings, inner and outer thighs, calves, and down to the ankles.
In terms of diet, here are some recommendations:
Water chestnut: This is an edible fruit or vegetable. You can buy it from Chinese supermarkets or grocery stores in harvest season. You can also purchase canned water chestnuts all season. Powdered water chestnuts are often used as an ingredient in Chinese herbal formulas to treat fibroids.
Hawthorne berry: This fruit can be eaten raw or consumed as juice, wine, or jam. The dried fruit is used in Chinese medicine to treat blood stasis, and is often an ingredient of herb formulas to treat fibroids.
Black wood ear: This is an edible mushroom. It is often used as a food therapy to treat heavy periods with fibroids.
Other beneficial foods for treating fibroids include seaweed, kelp, oyster, white daikon, and eggplant.
Some foods that fibroid patients should avoid are: spicy food, lamb, shrimp, crab, eel, red date, and royal jelly. Cutting out bad foods and including beneficial foods in the diet is essential for fibroid patients.
When clients with fibroid problems come for treatment, we help them in many different ways, depending on their specific problem. For example, some clients need treatment as they transition through menopause, after which the fibroids will shrink on their own. Some clients need to be supported during pregnancy, when the fibroids tend to grow and become painful. Others have problems during menstruation, while some come to be prepared for fibroid surgery. Most benefit from Chinese medicine treatment, but it is not a miracle and we let our clients know how much we can do for them before we provide treatment, based on our assessment of their condition.