What is uterine artery embolization?
Uterine artery embolization is a procedure to get rid of noncancerous tumors in the uterus (uterine fibroids). It does not use major surgery, so you may recover faster. You also may not need to stay in the hospital.
Uterine artery embolization shrinks fibroids by blocking off their blood supply. The doctor injects very small particles into the arteries that supply the fibroids. The particles stick to the vessel wall. This causes a clot to develop that blocks off the blood supply. Once the blood supply is gone, the fibroids shrink. Your symptoms usually ease or go away.
The most commonly used particles are from polyvinyl alcohol. This substance has safely been used by doctors for many years.
The procedure is done by a doctor called an interventional radiologist. This doctor specializes in treating conditions without using major surgery. Instead he or she uses small tools plus imaging tests. These tests may be X-rays, CT scans, MRI, fluoroscopy, or ultrasound.
Why might I need a uterine artery embolization?
The main reason to have a uterine artery embolization is to treat uterine fibroid tumors. These tumors are not cancer. They do not raise your risk for cancer.
From 2 in 10 to 5 in 10 women of childbearing age have fibroids. Not all of the tumors are diagnosed because they are too small. The fibroids can range from the size of a pea to as large as a softball or small grapefruit.
You may also need a uterine fibroid embolization if you have too much uterine bleeding. This means that you need to change a sanitary napkin or tampon every 2 hours. Or it may mean that your menstrual period lasts longer than 7 days.
You may also need this procedure if your healthcare provider thinks you have:
- Low blood count (anemia) from the uterine bleeding
- Fullness or pain in your belly (abdomen)
- An enlarged uterus
- Belly that is larger than normal
- Bladder pressure that makes you feel like you need to urinate often
- Pressure on the bowel that causes constipation and bloating
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Pain in your back or legs. This may be caused by the fibroids pressing on nerves.
Your healthcare provider may have other reasons to recommend a uterine artery embolization.
What are the risks of a uterine artery embolization?
Any procedure has possible complications. Possible complications of this procedure include:
- Abnormal bleeding (hemorrhage)
- Injury to the uterus
- Infection of the uterus or the puncture site in the groin
- Collection of blood under the skin (hematoma) at the puncture site in the groin
- Injury to the artery being used
- Blood clots
- Loss of menstrual periods (amenorrhea)
Some women have postembolization syndrome. Symptoms include:
- Pelvic pain and cramping
- Nausea and vomiting
- Low-grade fever
- Fatigue and discomfort
Symptoms of postembolization syndrome may last 2 to 7 days. It is treated with pain medicines and anti-inflammatory medicines. Medicine to help with nausea may also be used.
Some women will go through menopause after the procedure. This is especially true for women older than 45.
The uterus is not removed during uterine artery embolization. So you could still have a baby. But more research is needed to find out how this procedure might affect fertility and pregnancy.
You may have other risks that are unique to you. Be sure to discuss any concerns with your healthcare provider before the procedure.
How do I get ready for a uterine artery embolization?
- Your healthcare provider will explain the procedure to you. Ask him or her any questions you have about the procedure.
- You may be asked to sign a consent form that gives permission to do the procedure. Read the form carefully and ask questions if anything is not clear.
- You may need a physical exam before the procedure to make sure you are in good health. You may also need blood tests or other tests.
- You will be asked to stop eating and drinking (fast) for 8 hours before the test. This usually means after midnight.
- Tell your provider if you are pregnant or think you may be pregnant.
- Tell your healthcare provider if you are allergic to contrast dye or iodine.
- Tell your healthcare provider if you are sensitive to or are allergic to any medicines, latex, tape, or anesthetic drugs (local and general).
- Tell your provider about all medicines you are taking. This includes prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines, and herbal supplements.
- Tell your healthcare provider if you have had a bleeding disorder. Also tell your provider if you are taking blood-thinning medicine (anticoagulant), aspirin, or other medicines that affect blood clotting. You may need to stop these medications before the test.
- You will be given medicine to help you relax and a local pain medicine at the groin site.
- You should arrange for someone to help around the house for a day or two after the procedure.
- Follow any other instructions your provider gives you to get ready.
What happens during a uterine artery embolization?
You may have uterine artery embolization as an outpatient or may need to stay overnight in a hospital. The way the test is done may vary depending on your condition and your healthcare provider's practices.
Generally, a uterine artery embolization follows this process:
- You will be asked to remove any jewelry or other objects that may get in the way of the procedure.
- You will be asked to remove clothing. You will be given a gown to wear.
- An intravenous (IV) line will be started in your arm or hand.
- You may be given antibiotic medicine before the procedure.
- You will lie on your back on the procedure table.
- The doctor will put a long thin tube (catheter) into your bladder to drain urine.
- Medical staff will watch your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and blood oxygen level during the procedure.
- The doctor will clean the groin area with an antiseptic solution.
- The doctor will put a small tube (sheath) into your groin area. This will be used as a guide to put the catheter in the area to be blocked off (embolized).
- The doctor will inject contrast dye into the catheter. The contrast dye will help the doctor find the artery to be blocked off. The doctor will use X-rays to help find the blood vessels that supply blood to each fibroid.
- The doctor will put a tiny catheter into the groin (femoral) artery. He or she will inject very small particles into the blood vessels.
- The doctor will take more X-ray images to make sure the arteries are blocked.
- Some doctors will use one groin site to treat both the left and right uterine arteries if needed. Other doctors may use two groin sites.
- The sheath and catheter will be removed after the embolization is done.
What happens after a uterine artery embolization?
In the hospital
Medical staff will put pressure on the insertion site in the groin to stop bleeding. This usually takes about 20 minutes.
You will then be taken to the recovery room. Staff will watch your blood pressure, pulse, and breathing. You will need to lie flat for 4 to 6 hours. Your recovery process will vary depending on the type of medicine used to help you relax. Once your vital signs are stable and you are alert, you will be taken to your hospital room or sent home.
You may have cramping in your belly (abdomen) after the procedure. You may get pain medicine given by a nurse or through a device connected to your IV line.
You may have small to moderate amounts of fluid draining from your vagina for several days. The nurse will check the sanitary pads to see how much drainage you have.
You will be encouraged to get out of bed within a few hours. You should also do coughing and deep breathing exercises as your nurse tells you to.
You may be given liquids to drink a few hours after the procedure. Your diet may be gradually changed to more solid foods as you are able to eat them.
Once you are home, it is important to keep the groin incision clean and dry. Your healthcare provider will give you specific bathing instructions. If adhesive strips are used, they should be kept dry. They usually will fall off within a few days.
You may have aching at the incision site and in your abdominal and pelvic muscles. This is especially true after you stand for long periods. Take a pain reliever for soreness as recommended by your doctor. Aspirin or certain other pain medicines may increase the chance of bleeding. Be sure to take only recommended medicines.
Your doctor will probably recommend walking and limited movement. You will likely need to avoid strenuous activity. Your provider will tell you when you can go back to work and resume normal activities.
Make sure to include fiber and plenty of fluids in your diet. This will help keep you from getting constipated. Straining to have a bowel movement may cause problems. Your health care provider may recommend a mild laxative.
You should not use a douche or tampons, or have sexual intercourse until your healthcare provider says you can do so. Also do not go back to work until your provider says it is OK.
Tell your healthcare provider if any of these occur:
- Fever or chills
- Redness, swelling, or bleeding or other fluid drains from the incision site
- Increased pain around the incision site
- Abdominal pain, cramping, or swelling
- Increased vaginal bleeding or other drainage
You will need to see your healthcare provider for a follow-up visit. This is usually 1 to 2 weeks after the procedure. At that time the doctor may schedule an ultrasound or MRI in 6 months to see how well the procedure worked.
Your healthcare provider may give you other instructions, depending on your situation.
Before you agree to the test or the procedure make sure you know:
- The name of the test or procedure
- The reason you are having the test or procedure
- The risks and benefits of the test or procedure
- When and where you are to have the test or procedure and who will do it
- When and how will you get the results
- How much will you have to pay for the test or procedure