There are several different types of surgery for women with endometriosis, with varying degrees of success, which broadly fall into the two categories of conservative (e.g. excision or ablation) and radical (e.g. partial or complete remove of affected organs). I’ve spoken about the success rates of different surgeries before, but I’ve yet to discuss the success of surgery in the context of what type of endometriosis is being operated on. So, first off, a basic reminder of the different types of endometriosis. There are superficial endometriotic implants, which appear on the surface of organs like the ones in the picture below. These implants come in a variety of colours such a red, blue or black and generally the colour denotes how active the implant is.
In this picture you can see some blue implants as well as reddish-brown ones.
Picture courtesy of endometriosiszone.org
Then there are endometriotic cysts (endometrioma) which usually occur on the ovary and can range from as small as a pea to as large as a melon.
The endometrioma is the dark reddish-purple patch in the middle of the picture.
Picture courtesy of endometriosiszone.org
And there is also deeply infiltrating endometriosis (DIE) which can be one of the most difficult types to visualise and hence, operate on. The reason this type of endometriosis is so difficult to see is that the implants can be very small, up the point of being microscopic and so, invisible to the naked eye. The reason it is known as deeply infiltrating is that, unlike superficial endometriosis, DIE can ‘burrow into’ organs at depths ranging from 2mm to over 15mm and this is thought to be a significant cause of the very painful symptoms associated with endometriosis.
I’m going to focus on DIE for the rest of this post because the article I’ve come across recently is about the success of surgery for this type of endometriosis. The article in question followed 193 women with and without DIE, undergoing excisional surgery in the Päijät-Häme Central Hospital, Lahti, Finland. Women undergoing surgery for DIE were found to have significantly higher rASRM scores than those with other forms of the disease.
rASRM, to clarify, stands for the revised scoring system of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, who devised this scheme to classify the severity of different kinds of endometriosis. It is based on several features found inside the pelvis during surgery such as type, size and location of endometriosis, as well as the presence and severity of adhesions. The scoring system then classifies the endometriosis into one of four stages; minimal, mild, moderate or severe (although it is worth noting that severity of endometriosis appears to have little bearing on severity of symptoms). In this Finnish study, women with DIE had average rASRM scores that were very close to classing them with severe endometriosis. Women without DIE had average rASRM scores that would classify them as having moderate disease.
This study also found that women with DIE had significantly more previous surgeries for endometriosis and more were indicated for surgery because of pain. With respect to the surgical procedures performed; 60% of women with DIE had surgical excision of peritoneal lesions compared to 82% of those without DIE. This could be reflecting the difficulty of removing lesions in women with DIE, or it may be that women with DIE do not have as many peritoneal lesions.
92% of women with DIE had to have adhesions cut away compared to 69% of women without DIE. This might be reflective of the fact that women with DIE have had more previous surgeries, which would increase the chances of adhesions forming. Interestingly, 32% of women with DIE had a hysterectomy of some variety, compared to only 8% of women without DIE. The reason for this could be that, because deeply infiltrating lesions can be very challenging and time consuming to remove individually (hence, increasing the likelihood of serious complications arising), surgeons may opt for complete removal of the uterus as a quicker and safer procedure.
This study also looked at the completeness of excision of endometriosis during a single operation. Women with DIE compared favourably to those without in this aspect as complete excision was reported in 95% and 97% of cases respectively. However, excision during a laparoscopic surgery for DIE was only complete in 79% in of cases compared to 95% complete removal of endometriosis in women without DIE.
The final important finding of this study was that deep lesions are frequently found outside of the ‘typical’ locations i.e. the uterus, ovaries etc. This is significant because gynaecological surgeons may be unfamiliar with operating in atypical locations, therefore a multidisciplinary approach may be required involving additional specialist surgeons.
Then there is the issue of should patients have preoperative medical therapy? On the one hand some studies suggest that medical therapy before surgery may reduce the risk of complications arising during surgery. However some eminent specialists in endometriosis surgery forgo the use of drugs that may suppress endometriosis due to the fact that they may make the endometriotic implants harder to see whilst operating. If you are due to have surgical treatment for endometriosis anytime soon, these are issues you should raise with your surgeon. It is also important to remember that, if you do have deeply infiltrating endometriosis and are due for surgical excision, it is in your best interest to have a surgeon who is well experienced in this type of procedure and familiar with the problems this type of endometriosis can present.
Whilst we must always remember that one, relatively small, study such as this does not set the standard for all surgeries for DIE, it does give us a good example of what can be expected, the problems faced by patients and surgeons, and perhaps ways in which we can improve the surgical treatment of endometriosis.