Fibroid Treatments Demystified, Part I: Uterine Artery Embolization
Many women of reproductive age seek uterine-sparing methods of fibroid treatment: uterine artery embolization (UAE), sometimes called uterine fibroid embolization (UFE), is one of the hysterectomy alternatives available to women with fibroids.
How UAE Works
Uterine artery embolization (UAE) is a minimally-invasive procedure that is performed by an interventional radiologist. UAE treats fibroids “in situ”, meaning ‘in place’, by cutting off their blood supply and causing them to die from what is known as “ischemic necrosis”. To do so, an interventional radiologist inserts a catheter through the femoral artery (located in the upper thigh) and into the uterine artery, which supplies blood to the uterus. A type of material known as an “embolic agent” is then injected through the catheter, into the blood vessels that supply blood to the fibroids. Typical embolic agents include polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), gelatin sponge plegets, or gelatin microspheres. Once injected, particles of the agent block the blood supply to the tiny arteries that carry blood to the fibroids. Without adequate blood flow, the fibroids shrink and, ultimately, die.
UAE is successful in diminishing fibroids and associated symptoms in an estimated 85% of cases. For patients who are looking for a minimally invasive fibroid treatment, embolization’s non-surgical approach is appealing. The recovery period is generally short, though it is notoriously painful. Fred Burbank, author of Fibroids, Menstruation, Childbirth, and Evolution, states “nearly all women who undergo [UAE] have severe pelvic pain generally lasting 4 to 6 hours, but others, lasting up to a day” (p.124). The American Society For Reproductive Medicine also notes, “patients typically experience several days of pain after the procedure”. Many women are hospitalized overnight for pain control.
The incidence of fertility-compromising outcomes has called into question the appropriateness of the procedure for women seeking to get pregnant, though additional research is needed to assess the risk. Here’s what researchers do know: once the embolic agent has been injected, the particles stay in the body. In some cases, those particles can migrate to the ovarian blood supply, compromising fertility and triggering the onset of menopause. Burbank describes the physiological process after injection of the embolic agent:
Anatomically, connections exist that allow particles injected into the uterine artery to reach any structure supplied by branches of the uterine artery. The physiology of blood flow from the uterine artery to its branches determines the relative number of particles that reach the myometrium, fibroids, and the ovaries. Injected particles are indifferent to where they go.(p.111) A significant number of women who undergo UAE become amenorrheic (cease to have periods)as a result of the procedure; however, research has indicated that younger patients see fewer complications of this nature. A longitudinal study by Goodwin et. al found that, at 36 months post-procedure, approximately 85% of patients had no intervention but 28.6% of UAE patients were amenorrheic with the largest proportion(78.9%) of patients over the age of 45.
UAE isn’t right for everyone: women with fibroids should talk to a gynecologist about the risks and benefits of UAE and other available fibroid treatment options, before seeking treatment. However, as one of the less invasive methods for treating fibroids, UAE helps meet the growing demand for alternatives to hysterectomy.
- American Society for Reproductive Medicine, “Treatment of Uterine Fibroids”, ReproductiveFacts.org: 2011. Retrieved May 25, 2015, from http://www.reproductivefacts.org/FACTSHEET_Treatment_of_Uterine_Fibroids/
- Goodwin, S. et al./Fibroid Registry for Outcomes Data (FIBROID) Registry Steering Committee and Core Site Investigators.”Uterine Artery Embolization for the Treatment of Leiomyomata: long term outcomes from the FIBROID Registry”, Obstetrics & Gynecology, Jan 2008; Vol 11(1):22-33
- Burbank, F. Fibroids, Menstruation, Childbirth, and Evolution, p. 110. Wheatmark, 2009. Tucson, AZ.