By Karen Pallarito
MONDAY, April 4, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Women with bothersome uterine fibroids saw improvements in their sex lives and significant symptom relief a year after undergoing a type of non-surgical treatment called uterine fibroid embolization, a French study finds.
Nearly eight in 10 women who completed surveys a year after treatment reported improved sexual function, a measure that reflects pain, desire, arousal and satisfaction.
About nine in 10 had better overall quality of life, researchers said.
"UFE [uterine fibroid embolization] is not a new intervention," said Dr. Marc Sapoval, one of the study co-authors. Sapoval is a professor of clinical radiology at Hopital Europeen Georges Pompidou in Paris.
"What's new in this data is the fact that we focused on sexual function," he said.
The study results were scheduled to be presented Sunday at the Society of Interventional Radiology's annual scientific meeting in Vancouver, Canada. Findings presented at meetings are generally viewed as preliminary until they've been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Uterine fibroids are a type of solid tumor. They are usually non-cancerous. Fibroids can form in and around the uterus and within the uterine walls, according to the U.S. Office on Women's Health.
Women with fibroids often experience significant symptoms and discomfort, Sapoval said. These symptoms may include heavy menstrual bleeding, pain during sexual intercourse, and pelvic, back and leg pain
Hysterectomy -- removal of the uterus -- is the only treatment that can guarantee fibroids won't return. But it's not the only treatment option available, the Office on Women's Health says.
UFE, also known as uterine artery embolization, is one alternative to surgery.
For the procedure, an interventional radiologist makes a tiny snip in the skin of the groin or wrist. A thin tube is inserted in the artery at the top of the leg. Using real-time imaging, the tube is snaked into the uterine artery, which supplies blood to the uterus, the researchers explained.
Then, sand-sized particles are released, blocking blood flow to the tiny arteries that feed the fibroid. With the blood supply choked off, the tumor shrinks and dies, the study authors said.
The study included more than 260 women from 25 centers throughout France who had the embolization procedure. The women completed assessments on their sexual function and quality of life before and one year after the procedure.
Initially, 189 women reported abnormally heavy menstrual bleeding. Just over 170 experienced pain due to fibroids, the study revealed. But a year after treatment, only 39 patients reported abnormal bleeding. And, only 42 still had pelvic pain, the study found.
After a year, the procedure was associated with significant improvement in all aspects of sexual function, the investigators found.
"Not only is UFE an effective treatment for uterine fibroids, but it allows women to return to a more normal life, increase their sexual desire, and enjoy an overall improved quality of life," Sapoval said.
One caveat: it's not recommended for women who want to get pregnant because there are still some unknowns about fertility after the procedure, he said.
Despite the positives, UFE is not widely used in the United States, noted Dr. Robert Vogelzang. He's chief of vascular and interventional radiology at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago and a past president of the Society of Interventional Radiology.
"Sadly, the patients who have fibroids are often not being told about embolization," Vogelzang said.
Asked why doctors aren't talking about it, Vogelzang said he believes "it's largely an economic issue," implying that obstetrician/gynecologists have no financial incentive to recommend a treatment they don't perform.
Not everyone agrees, however. Dr. Scott Chudnoff said that most obstetricians and gynecologists are forthright in discussing all of the surgical and medical options for treating fibroids, including embolization. He's director of gynecology at the Montefiore Health System Moses Campus in the Bronx, N.Y.
If surgery would be risk for a woman, Chudnoff said he often highly recommends embolization. But there are a lot of factors that go into the final decision, he said. One is the tumor's location. Another is a woman's personal history with fibroids and whether she wants to get pregnant, he noted.
Better answers about which uterine fibroid treatments work best are likely on the horizon. The U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality is building a nationwide registry of women undergoing fibroid treatment at centers across the country through 2019. This data will allow researchers to compare the effectiveness of various approaches.
Learn what's being done to help women make informed decisions about fibroid treatment options through COMPARE-UF.