For women with endometriosis chronic pain is a regular occurrence. Even though the condition is often difficult to diagnose, it affects up to 10 percent of women. But regular physical activity may actually help alleviate endometriosis symptoms, as well as provide a healthy coping strategy for those suffering. Here’s what you should know about endometriosis, in general, and how to safely approach your exercise routine, if you have been diagnosed.
What is endometriosis, and how do you know if you have it?
“Endometriosis is a painful disorder in which tissue that normally lines the inside of your uterus (called the endometrium) grows outside your uterus,” explains Dr. Alison Mitzner. “Endometriosis most commonly involves your ovaries, fallopian tubes, and the tissue lining your pelvis. So with each menstrual cycle, it thickens, same as it should in your uterus. But, because it is not where it should be, it cannot exit your body, becomes trapped, and causes pain.”
Dr. Kecia Gaither, a perinatal consultant and women’s health expert, says the uterine lining can implant in surfaces, such as your ovary or bowel, and later cause inflammation and scarring. The root cause of endometriosis is still technically unknown. Dr. Gaither says symptoms include pain during your period, during sex, during bowel movements, during urination, or just chronically throughout your pelvis.
“Symptoms can vary—some women have menstrual pain that’s far worse than usual, or can have pain that gets worse over time,” says Dr. Mitzner. “Others can have excessive bleeding or nausea, or no pain at all, or [are] diagnosed upon trouble with fertility. You know your body best. If you have any concern or symptom that doesn’t seem right to you, be sure to follow up with your doctor or OB-GYN, who can confirm the diagnosis,” she adds.
Does exercise help manage or relieve endometriosis pain?
Most experts agree that regular exercise can help improve endometriosis symptoms. One study indicates that working out can offer a so-called “protective effect” against diseases of inflammation, which includes endometriosis. Other studies suggest exercise may reduce your risk of endometriosis by 40 to 80 percent, particularly if that exercise involves high-intensity activity. As a reminder, it’s wise to check in with your doctor to confirm what type of exercise is best for your body and situation.
“It’s important to try to just get yourself to move, which, with pain, isn’t easy for some,” says Dr. Mitzner. “However, even a small amount, 15-20 minutes a day, can help. Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, which has been shown to be a stress reliever and even a pain reducer.”
Exercise also decreases the amount of estrogen your body produces, which can be helpful, says Dr. Gaither. She recommends jogging, dancing, and swimming as forms of exercise that could lessen endometriosis pain.
For Meghan Cleary, an endometriosis patient advocate and journalist, her endometriosis diagnosis eventually led to treatment through surgery. And exercise played a fundamental role during recovery.
“For me, personally, I found walking, restorative and gentle yoga, as well as regular physical therapy exercises that focused on strengthening my core to all be beneficial following my excision surgery,” says Cleary. “It’s really a personal, individual thing about finding the right movement that works for your body.”
Can a healthy lifestyle reduce endometriosis symptoms?
According to one study, healthy behavior as a whole impacts your ability to deal with chronic pain, like endometriosis. This includes exercise, diet, and self-care.
“Warm baths, heating pads, and anti-inflammatory medicines such as ibuprofen can help,” advises Dr. Mitzner. “Eat a healthy diet, avoid processed foods and caffeine, and eat foods that decrease inflammation. Some of my favorites include blueberries, broccoli, salmon, and spinach). Breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, acupuncture, and osteopathy can also help many women.”
Dr. Gaither recommends erring on the side of caution when it comes to getting diagnosed, too. “I would advise any woman with excruciating pain during menses or sex, or with infertility symptoms, to seek medical advice expeditiously to get a diagnosis. The sooner endometriosis is diagnosed, the less time it has to do damage to the internal organs of the woman affected,” she says.
Above all, try to be flexible and patient when it comes to exercise and endometriosis. Depending on your pain levels, you may not be able to work out as consistently as you prefer. But you can still utilize active rest days in order to stay fit and healthy. Then, hit the gym hard when symptoms subside.