Can Chinese herbal medicine combat endometriosis?

It may, according to a new review published by the Cochrane Collaboration, an international nonprofit that analyzes health care information.

The review, which looked at results of two randomized studies of Chinese herbal medicine involving 158 women, suggested that Chinese herbs may provide better relief of pelvic pain and other symptoms than one of the prescription drugs normally used in the West, Danazol.

Endometriosis occurs when tissue from inside the uterus escapes to other parts of the body. Outside the uterus, this tissue is seen as “foreign” by the immune system, which means that the body mounts an inflammatory response that can cause pain and scarring.

In the review, researchers at the University of Southampton in England found that Chinese herbs – which were not specified and which typically vary from patient to patient in Chinese medicine – were better at relieving menstrual pain than Danazol, a testosterone-derived drug, and were also better at shrinking endometrial masses. They did not prove better for other types of endometrial discomfort, such as rectal pain.

Dr. Aaron Styer, a reproductive endocrinologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital Fertility Center, noted that in the West, the first line of treatment for endometriosis is birth control and other hormonal drugs, which suppress secretion of estrogen by the ovaries. Although the Chinese herbal study is not conclusive, he said, “if a patient has not done well with traditional therapy or doesn’t want to proceed with it, she should investigate these approaches more completely, as long as there’s no potential health risk of taking these herbs.”

Dr. Hope Riccotti, clinical director of obstetrics and gynecology at the Dimock Community Health Center, cautioned that “herbs are drugs and drug interactions can be dangerous,” which makes it important for women to tell their health care providers if they are taking these herbs.