Medical treatments for uterine fibroids

This article discusses a new medical treatment that can be used to shrink fibroids prior to surgery.



Uterine fibroids are common, and are found in up to 70–80% of women by the time they reach the menopause. Their prevalence increases with age, from approximately 20% of women at the age of 20 years to 35–60% at the age of 35 years. Fortunately, the majority of the fibroids are harmless and only half of them are considered ‘significant’. Due to the high prevalence of fibroids a large number of treatment options are available. These include surgical removal of fibroids (myomectomy), uterine artery embolisation (an angiography procedure, which blocks the blood supply to the fibroids causing them to shrink), high frequency ultrasound treatment and hysterectomy.

Existing medical treatments for fibroids

Medical (drug) treatments for fibroids have traditionally been of limited value due to their temporary effects and unwanted side effects. Derivatives of the progesterone hormone (called progestins) are sometimes used to control the bleeding symptoms that some fibroids may cause, but they do not reduce the size of fibroids. These hormones can be taken as tablets or used in the form of an intrauterine contraceptive system called Mirena IUS. Mirena is particularly useful when the cavity of the uterus is not very large or distorted by the presence of fibroids. For more information on the treatment of irregular or heavy periods please click here.

Drugs called GnRHa’s (Gonadotropin releasing hormone analogues – drugs such as Gonapeptyl, Prostap, Zoladex, etc.) switch off the stimulation of the ovaries by the pituitary gland, which is an area under the brain. Lack of this stimulation sends the ovaries “to sleep” and creates a condition similar to “temporary menopause”. This causes very low oestrogen levels in the circulation and the lack of oestrogen results in shrinkage of the fibroids and cessation of periods. However, the low oestrogen levels also cause side effects similar to the symptoms of menopause such as hot flushes, night sweats and vaginal dryness. It also causes loss of bone density (osteoporosis) and, for this reason these drugs can only be used for a limited period of 3–6 months. When they are discontinued the fibroids usually grow back to their original size and the periods return. GnRHa’s are therefore not suitable for the long-term treatment of fibroids but are usually used to stop the heavy periods and shrink the fibroids before their surgical removal. This treatment is beneficial as it allows the correction of any low blood count (anaemia) before surgery and reduces blood loss at surgery. These drugs are usually given as monthly or three-monthly injections and occasionally as sprays into the nostrils.

Promising new medical treatment for fibroids

A promising new medical treatment for fibroids has recently become available that uses the drug ulipristal acetate (Esmya), which belongs to a group of drugs called selective progesterone receptor modulators (SPRMs). These drugs usually block the progesterone receptors in a number of organs and tissue. The effect on fibroids of this drug is a significant reduction in the size. In addition, they reduce period bleeding and may stop them altogether in a matter of 7–10 days. This not only puts an end to the troublesome periods but also corrects anaemia. These drugs do not lower oestrogen levels and therefore do not cause menopausal symptoms. They are in tablet form and are taken once a day by mouth, without the need for injections.

These drugs are currently licensed to be used to shrink fibroids before operations for a period of three months. When they are discontinued after three months the periods return quickly, but the size of the fibroids take longer to return to their original size, compared to the GnRHa injections. The long-term usage has not been tested as yet and, as a result, they should not be used for longer than three months. Further clinical studies are currently under way to test the benefits and risks of their long term use.

In conclusion, ulipristal acetate appears to be a very good alternative to GnRHa injections as it does not cause major side effects and can be taken by mouth, whilst it has similar efficacy in reducing the size of fibroids. Furthermore, it resolves troublesome bleeding quicker than GnRHa injections. Once long-term studies are completed it may provide a real alternative to surgery (myomectomy or hysterectomy) and uterine artery embolisation.

For further information on the author of this article, Consultant Gynaecologist, Mr Ertan Saridogan, please click here.
A reduced level of haemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood. Anaemia causes tiredness, breathlessness and abnormally pale skin. Full medical glossary
X-ray imaging of the blood vessels following the injection of a dye to improve visibility. Full medical glossary
A blood vessel that carries blood away from the heart. Apart from the pulmonary artery and umbilical artery, all arteries carry oxygenated blood. Full medical glossary
A fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. Full medical glossary
A term used to describe something that prevents pregnancy. Full medical glossary
A benign tumour, most often in the uterus. Full medical glossary
Benign tumours, most often in the uterus. Full medical glossary
A viral infection affecting the respiratory system. Full medical glossary
An organ with the ability to make and secrete certain fluids. Full medical glossary
gonadotrophin-releasing hormone Full medical glossary
A substance produced by a gland in one part of the body and carried by the blood to the organs or tissues where it has an effect. Full medical glossary
The surgical removal of the uterus (womb). Full medical glossary
inside the uterus Full medical glossary
Relating to the menopause, the time of a woman’s life when her ovaries stop releasing an egg (ovum) on a monthly cycle. Full medical glossary

The time of a woman’s life when her ovaries stop releasing an egg (ovum) on a monthly cycle, and her periods cease

Full medical glossary
A hormone involved in female sexual development, produced by the ovaries. Full medical glossary
A condition resulting in brittle bones due to loss of bony tissue. Full medical glossary
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A gland deep in the brain that produces several hormones controlling the production of other hormones throughout the body Full medical glossary
A group of cells with a similar structure and a specialised function. Full medical glossary
A diagnostic method in which very high frequency sound waves are passed into the body and the reflective echoes analysed to build a picture of the internal organs – or of the foetus in the uterus. Full medical glossary
The womb, where embryo implantation occurs and the growing foetus is nourished. Full medical glossary
The muscula passage, forming part of the femal reproductive system, between the cervix and the external genitalia. Full medical glossary