Pelvic pain leaves women suffering in silence

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It took Gina Dobrasz nearly 3 years, about 10 MRIs and dozens of doctor visits to find interventional radiologist Dr. Jason Levy of Atlanta’s Northside Hospital, and a diagnosis for her pain.

"I started to think, 'It might just all be in my head. Maybe it's just me,'" Dobrasz says.

The pain began after she'd given birth to her two children.

"Just started to notice a lot of pressure in my pelvic area,” she says. “Back pain down to my thighs.  So, I thought it's my back."

Gina went to a pain specialist, a neurologist, a rheumatologist, and two neurosurgeon.  But, nothing they recommended helped. The pain persisted.

"I felt like I was labeled, 'Oh, she's got pain. She's that pain patient,’” she says. “And it just really started to make me feel depressed. I started to feel like, 'Okay, maybe I'm just going to have to spend the rest of my life like this.'"

Gina finally found Dr. Levy after a radiologist noted on one her MRIs she has swelling in the blood vessels in her pelvic area. 

She was diagnosed with pelvic venous congestion syndrome, varicose veins in her pelvic area.

The condition affects both men and women.  But women have a harder time getting a diagnosis because the varicose veins are typically centered in the area around their ovaries, making them harder to visualize on ultrasound or imaging tests.

In men, the veins are found in the area around their testicles and are more easily discovered.

"They're broken veins,” says Dr. Levy.  “They're veins that don't work.  They're varicose veins just like varicose veins of the leg; they're varicose veins of the ovaries."

Levy says it’s a challenging diagnosis and one that often gets missed in women.

“And many women suffer from going to doctor to doctor, or possible treatment to possible treatment,” he says.

The main symptoms can be confusing: chronic pelvic pain and a feeling of fullness in the pelvic area.

"It typically presents with pain that is worse when they're upright and improves after a long night's sleep where they're lying down,” Levy says.  ‘But the pain can be really debilitating.  Just yesterday I saw a patient who said, 'I couldn't work for a week because of the pain.’"

For mild pelvic pain caused by this syndrome, hormones may help.

For more severe pain, some women opt for a hysterectomy and surgical removal of their ovaries.

Gina underwent a minimally-invasive procedure known as embolization.  Dr. Levy used a catheter to go in and plug the leaking veins. And, pretty quickly, the pain went away.

Dr. Levy says the procedure has a high success rate in terms of reducing pelvic pain.  But few women know about it.

Gina Dobrasz hopes sharing her story will get the word out to women suffering in silence.

"You have to be your own advocate these days in healthcare,” Dobrasz says. “And if you have a hunch of something that is wrong, then you need to be empowered to go and search for it."