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AARP The Magazine

4 Surgeries to Avoid

Reasons to think twice before going under the knife

3. Hysterectomy for Uterine Fibroids

Each year approximately 600,000 American women have hysterectomies, or removal of the uterus, and studies show that the vast majority are unnecessary. A hysterectomy is critical when the patient has cancer (which is the case for about 10 percent of those women). But most patients undergo the procedure for quality-of-life concerns such as heavy bleeding or pain caused by uterine fibroids — benign growths in the uterine wall.

Complications are common. Women who undergo a hysterectomy have a 60 percent increased risk of incontinence by age 60, a University of California, San Francisco study found. A hysterectomy that includes removal of the ovaries — an oophorectomy — throws the patient into instant menopause. These patients also face a higher risk of heart disease and lung cancer, says William Parker, M.D., author of A Gynecologist's Second Opinion and lead investigator of a 2009 study on the long-term health consequences of hysterectomy.

Alternatives to surgery

If you suffer from uterine fibroids, ask your doctor about other options, including uterine-artery embolization, in which the arteries leading to the uterus are blocked, causing the fibroids to stop growing. You might also consider a new procedure, focused ultrasound, which shrinks fibroids via ultrasound waves. "It's kind of amazing that we've had all these alternative procedures for many years and they haven't gained a lot of traction," says Parker.

Next: Surgery No. 4 - Knee arthroscopy for osteoarthritis. »

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