Diaphragmatic Endometriosis Diagnosed Years After Symptom Onset

Diaphragmatic endometriosis is often diagnosed several years after the start of symptoms – mainly moderate to severe pain – and this is potentially because of general lack of awareness of diaphragmatic endometriosis among the general population and medical professionals.

Findings of the international survey that explored the diagnosis and treatment of diaphragmatic endometriosis were presented at this year’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists 2021 Virtual World Congress by medical student Rachel Piccus, MSc, based at the University of Birmingham (England). Robert Sutcliffe, MD, consultant in hepatobiliary and pancreatic surgery, at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham was senior author. Results were also published in the May 2021 issue of the European Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and Reproductive Biology.

The study found that it took an average of five visits to a primary physician before referral to a gynecologist.

“Late diagnosis could also be due to the idea that diaphragmatic endometriosis symptoms often present before pelvic symptoms and therefore the site of pain is considered atypical for pelvic endometriosis,” Piccus said, adding that “clinicians are screening for cyclical pain, which is typical of endometriosis, but our study has shown that pain can in fact be more frequent – daily and weekly.”

These significant diagnostic delays, seen from the time of the initial primary care and gynecology consultation has the potential to significantly affect quality of life as seen in pelvic endometriosis, said Piccus. “These delays are partly due to a lack of awareness among gynecologists, but could also be due to pelvic laparoscopy being insufficient to examine the diaphragm behind the liver.”

Justin Clark, MD, consultant gynaecologist, Birmingham (England) Women’s and Children Hospital, moderated the session and agreed that the study highlights the need for greater awareness of this variant of endometriosis. “Whilst endometriosis affecting the diaphragm, subdiaphragm, and thorax is rare, the condition causes substantial morbidity.”

“Greater knowledge of thoracic endometriosis amongst clinicians in both primary and secondary care is needed to ensure accurate and timely diagnosis,” he added.

Diaphragmatic endometriosis is estimated to affect 1%-1.5% of all endometriosis patients and presents as cyclical pain in the chest, abdomen, and shoulder tip, as well as other respiratory symptoms such as catamenial pneumothorax and difficulty breathing.

“Cross-sectional imaging has shown low sensitivity so upper abdominal laparoscopy is the gold standard; however, this has implications for diagnostic delay because a strong clinical suspicion is required to refer for this invasive procedure,” explained Piccus referring to one of the reasons underpinning the need for the study.

When successfully diagnosed, treatment requires excision or ablation surgery and studies show symptomatic relief in 75%-100% of cases.

To gauge the extent of delayed diagnosis as well as treatment outcomes from a patient perspective, Piccus circulated an anonymous online survey among women with a previous history of surgery for diaphragmatic endometriosis.

Diaphragmatic Endometriosis Pain – Daily and Weekly as Well as Cyclical

A total of 137 participants responded to the survey, with a median age of 34 years (range, 19-53). Median age of diaphragmatic endometriosis onset was 27 years (range, 11-50), and importantly, diaphragmatic endometriosis symptoms started before pelvic symptoms in 90 respondents (66%).

The dominant symptom was pain. A total of 38% reported cyclical pain (related to endometrial shedding during menstruation), 15% weekly pain, and 47% daily pain, both of which were worse during the menstrual cycle. Furthermore, 14% reported other symptoms including catamenial pneumothorax, difficulty breathing, and hemoptysis.

“Whilst this cyclical pain is typical of endometriosis, we see that diagnostic delays may be due to misdiagnosis because clinicians are screening for this cyclical pain whilst our study has shown that pain can in fact be more frequent, being daily and weekly,” noted Piccus. Moderate to severe pain was reported in 67% of respondents and moderate in 31%, only 2% reported pain as mild.

Location of pain comprised moderate to severe pain in the upper abdomen (68%), chest (64%) and shoulder (54%). Pain was right-sided in 54%, left-sided in 11% and bilateral in 35%. Upper back and neck were also reported as sites of pain.

Indirectly providing a measure of the lack of awareness of diaphragmatic endometriosis on behalf of primary care, 122 participants reported initially visiting their primary care physician for help and 65 were given a diagnosis – in only 14 cases was that diaphragmatic endometriosis. There were a range of other gynecologic (e.g. ovarian cyst, two), respiratory (spontaneous pneumothorax, seven), gastrointestinal (gastritis/reflux, eight), musculoskeletal (six), and psychological (anxiety/stress, four) diagnoses.

A median of 5 primary care consultations (range, 1-100) were required before referral to a gynecologist, with 30% seeing a primary care physician over 10 times. A further 14 patients self-referred to gynecologist.

“These findings have implications for diagnostic delay, added Piccus. “While the majority of respondents were diagnosed less than a year from the first GP visit, the median delay was 2 years, with 31% diagnosed after 5 or more years. One took 23 years for an initial diagnosis.”

Most cases were diagnosed at the time of surgery – 93%, with 52% at pelvic laparoscopy, 35% upper abdominal laparoscopy, with 30% requiring two or more laparoscopies before they were diagnosed with diaphragmatic endometriosis. A total of 7% were diagnosed via cross-sectional imaging prior to surgery.

Treatment Outcomes for Diaphragmatic Endometriosis

Reflecting the literature, surgery to remove the endometriosis lesions was mainly laparoscopic with 47% abdominal excisions, and 29% abdominal ablations; 6% received open abdominal procedures, and 18% received open thoracotomy or video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery.

The survey asked about postoperative symptoms 6 months after surgery and at the time of survey. Symptoms at 6 months post surgery had completely resolved in 18%, shown significant improvement in 48%, and no improvement in 20%. Worsening of symptoms was seen in 14%. Long-term pain was reported by 21% as severe, 27% as moderate, 35% as mild, and 17% had no symptoms.

Further findings included that 23% underwent additional procedures to treat their diaphragmatic endometriosis, and that there was no significant difference between excision and ablation, nor between age of onset of symptoms or length of diagnostic delay.

“Surgical treatment to remove these extra pelvic deposits of endometriosis will depend upon the type and distribution of thoracic endometriosis and a variety of surgical specialties may need to be involved including gynecologists, cardiothoracic, and upper gastrointestinal/liver surgeons,” Clark said.

He added that familiar hormonal medical treatments for more typical pelvic endometriosis should also be considered for primary and maintenance treatment. “These data suggest a high symptomatic recurrence rate after surgical treatment and so medical treatments should be considered to try and minimize the risks of endometriosis symptoms returning.”

Clark also pointed out that multidisciplinary clinical teams should be established in specialized centers to plan surgical and medical management to enhance clinical outcomes and collect data to better understand this enigmatic condition.

Piccus and Clark have no relevant conflicts of interest.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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