Women’s Health

Urmila Parlikar

No “best” treatment for common uterine fibroids

Urmila Parlikar, Senior Content Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Fibroids are noncancerous tumors that grow in the uterus. They may be smaller than a seed or bigger than a grapefruit. Depending on their size, number, and location, fibroids can cause heavy bleeding and long menstrual periods (which can, in turn, cause anemia), pelvic pain, frequent urination, or constipation. Fibroids can also cause infertility and repeated miscarriages. About 7 in 10 women will develop this condition at some point. Given how common uterine fibroids are, it’s surprising how few randomized trials have been done to compare treatment options. A clinical practice article in today’s New England Journal of Medicine lays out the options for treating uterine fibroids and discusses the factors women and their doctors should consider when making treatment decisions.

Nancy Ferrari

Menopause-related hot flashes and night sweats can last for years

Nancy Ferrari, Senior editor, Harvard Health

According to conventional medical wisdom, menopause-related hot flashes fade away after six to 24 months. Not so, says a new study of women going through menopause. Hot flashes and related night sweats last, on average, for about seven years and may go on for 11 years or more. The new estimates of the duration of these symptoms come from the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN), a long-term study of women of different races and ethnicities who are in the menopausal transition. The “reality check” the SWAN study provides on hot flashes should encourage women to talk with a doctor about treatment options. These range from estrogen-based hormone therapy to other medications and self-help measures.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Full bladder wakes 2 in 3 women at night

Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor
Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

Getting up at night to use the bathroom is often thought of as a problem mainly for older men. Not so—two in three women over age 40 wake up at least once each night because of a full bladder. And nearly half of them make two or more nighttime trips to the bathroom. Factors that increased the likelihood that a woman woke at night to urinate included older age, having had a hysterectomy, having hot flashes, and using vaginal estrogen. Many of the women had no other urinary problems, such as an overactive bladder or leaking urine when coughing, and many weren’t especially bothered by having to get up at night to urinate. Getting up once or more each night to urinate may not be “bothersome,” but it can still cause problems. It can interfere with sleep. It can also lead to falls and injury.

Cold hands: Could it be Raynaud’s?

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

If your fingers turn ghostly white and numb when they get cold, you may have Raynaud’s syndrome (or disease or phenomenon). This common condition Raynaud’s is an exaggeration of the body’s normal response to cold. It usually affects fingers and toes, but may also affect the nose, lips, ears, and nipples. Named after the French physician who first described it in 1862, Raynaud’s is a problem in the body’s arteries. They spasm and collapse in response to cold or stress. Without a steady supply of warm blood circulating through them, the affected body part becomes pale. When the spasm ends and the arteries reopen, allowing blood to flow again, the finger, toe, or other body part turns pink or red. It may throb or tingle. Prevention—staying warm—is the best medicine. It’s possible to cut an attack short by running your hands under warm water, putting them in your arm pits, or waving your arms in circles to get the blood flowing. Other options include thermal feedback and relaxation techniques. More experimental options include Botox injections and sildenafil (Viagra).

Heidi Godman

New guidelines recommend Kegels, other lifestyle treatments for urinary incontinence in women

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

New guidelines from the American College of Physicians offer drug-free ways women can use to reduce or stop urinary incontinence, a potentially embarrassing condition that affects millions of women. The guidelines recommend that women first try Kegel exercises, bladder training, exercise, and weight loss if needed. These approaches can work for both of the leading types of urinary incontinence: stress incontinence (leakage with laughter, sneezing, or other things that put pressure on the bladder) and urge incontinence, also known as overactive bladder, which is caused by unpredictable contractions of muscles in the bladder wall. Other lifestyle changes, like watch fluid intake and minimizing bladder irritants like caffeine, alcohol, carbonated drinks, and other may also help. If these approaches aren’t effective, the next step might be treatment with medication, surgery, or even an injection of botulinum toxin to relax overactive bladder muscles.

Myth busted: bra wearing not linked to breast cancer

According to one persistent Internet myth, women who wear bras are more likely to develop breast cancer. Not true, says a study published online in the journal Cancer, Epidemiology, Biomarkers, and Prevention. In a study of more than 1,500 women, researchers from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found no links between risk of two common types of breast cancer — invasive ductal carcinoma or invasive lobular carcinoma — and any aspect of bra wearing, including cup size, use of a bra with an underwire, age at first bra use, and average number of hours per day a bra was worn. This may not be the last word on the subject, since the Fred Hutchinson study represents only the second to look at the connection between bra use and breast cancer. But until other findings appear, women worried that wearing a bra might cause cancer have one less thing to worry about.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Expert panel says healthy women don’t need yearly pelvic exam

Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor
Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

The annual pelvic exam, an oft-dreaded part of preventive care for women, may become the as-needed pelvic exam, thanks to new guidelines from the American College of Physicians. For decades, doctors have believed this exam may detect problems like ovarian cancer or a bacterial infection even if a woman had no symptoms. But an expert panel appointed by the American College of Physicians now says that healthy, low-risk women do not need to have a pelvic exam every year. The exam isn’t very effective at finding problems like ovarian cancer or a vaginal infection, and it often causes discomfort and distress. Sometimes it also leads to surgery that is not needed. The new guidelines only apply to the pelvic exam, and only in healthy women.

Heidi Godman

For women, sexuality changes with age but doesn’t disappear

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Some people assume that women become less interested in sex as they age. That may be true for some women, but it isn’t for others. New research published in JAMA Internal Medicine reports that women between the ages of 40 and 65 who place greater importance on sex are more likely to stay sexually active as they age. In other words, if it’s important to you, you’ll keep on doing it. There are many reasons why sex may slow down for women when they get older, not least of which is menopause. It can cause decreased interest in sex and physical problems that make sex difficult, or even painful. Poor health can also get in the way of having sex. So what’s a woman to do? Seek treatment, which may not be as complicated as you think.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

New guidelines aim to help women prevent stroke

Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor
Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

The first-ever guidelines for preventing stroke in women don’t fool around. They offer ways to prevent this disabling and potentially deadly event from adolescence to old age. More than half of the 800,000 Americans who have strokes each year are women. Nearly 4 million American women are living with the aftermath of a stroke. And because women live longer than men, their lifetime risk of having a stroke is higher. Those numbers are why stroke prevention is especially important for women. The guidelines cover the use of oral contraceptives, high blood pressure during pregnancy, the use of hormones after menopause, and migraine with aura. They also cover the fundamentals of stroke prevention, like controlling blood pressure, exercising more, eating a healthy diet, and not smoking.

Stephanie Watson

Radiation for breast cancer can increase heart risks

Radiation, on its own or coupled with other treatments, has helped many women survive breast cancer. Yet radiation therapy can cause the appearance of heart disease years later. New research published in JAMA Internal Medicine estimates that the increased lifetime risk for a heart attack or other major heart event in women who’ve had breast cancer radiation is between 0.5% and 3.5%. The risk is highest among women who get radiation to the left breast—understandable, since that’s where the heart is located. The heart effects of radiation begin emerging as soon as five years after treatment. However, future heart risk should not be the reason to abandon this important component of treatment. Cancer experts are doing more and more to minimize the amount of radiation the heart receives.