Harvard Women's Health Watch

Ask the doctor: What happens to the plastic beads injected during uterine artery embolization?

Q. Ten years ago, I had uterine artery embolization to get rid of uterine fibroids. How long do the plastic particles they inject into the arteries stay in the body? Do they dissolve?

A. Uterine artery embolization (UAE), also called uterine fibroid embolization, is a minimally invasive treatment that shrinks uterine fibroids by cutting off their blood supply. During UAE, an interventional radiologist inserts a catheter into the femoral artery through a small nick in the skin at the groin and guides it into one of the two uterine arteries, which supply blood to the uterus. Contrast dye is injected to help visualize the uterine artery as well as the smaller branching vessels that feed the fibroid. The radiologist then injects tiny synthetic particles, or beads, which concentrate in the smaller vessels, forming a clot that cuts off the fibroid's blood supply. Lacking blood, the fibroid gradually shrinks.

The types of particles most often used in this procedure are trisacryl gelatin microspheres and polyvinyl alcohol particles (a plastic material that resembles coarse sand). Both types are incorporated in the clot that blocks the fibroid's blood supply. The particles are considered biologically inert: they don't dissolve, aren't absorbed by tissues, and don't cause any allergic reactions or inflammation. In the United States, embolization particles have been used safely and successfully for decades for treating a variety of conditions — and since 1995 for treating uterine fibroids. Follow-up studies suggest that the particles remaining in your uterine blood vessels will have no long-term effects.

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