Wednesday, 17 October, 2007
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is the most common endocrine disorder in women, affecting an estimated five to ten percent women of reproductive age in India. For women trying to conceive a child, PCOS is a serious, common cause of infertility - nearly half of all female factor infertility cases can be traced to PCOS. New medical insight into the disease has led to treatment options, including insulin-reducing ovulation medication (Clomiphene, Letrozole, Metformin), dietary changes (low glycemic diet) and surgery (ovarian drilling), which have proven successful and allow many women to overcome PCOS and conceive a child naturally, while reducing the risk of miscarriage. Women who undergo treatment for PCOS but are still unable to conceive naturally often turn to assisted reproductive technologies, including IVF, and experience high pregnancy success rates. At Rotunda, our physicians specialize in this common, yet often misunderstood cause of infertility. We work closely with each patient to understand her specific medical case and personal goals, including weight loss, pregnancy or improving general health, and develop a holistic approach to reach those goals. Oftentimes, the road to overcoming PCOS is not an easy one and it takes a strong commitment from both the patient and the physician. The team at Rotunda is committed to supporting our patients every step of the way. I have just published a monograph on "PCOS" which was released by Anshan Publications (www.anshan.co.uk).
Polycystic ovary syndrome is characterized by anovulation (irregular or absent menstrual periods) and hyperandrogenism (elevated serum testosterone and androstenedione). Patients with this syndrome may complain of abnormal bleeding, infertility, obesity, excess hair growth, hair loss and acne. In addition to the clinical and hormonal changes associated with this condition, vaginal ultrasound shows enlarged ovaries with an increased number of small (6-10mm) follicles around the periphery (PCO like ovaries). While ultrasound reveals that polycystic appearing ovaries are commonly seen in up to 20% of women in the reproductive age range, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is a estimated to affect about half as many or approximately 6-10% of women. The condition appears to have a genetic component and those effected often have both male and female relatives with adult-onset diabetes, obesity, elevated blood triglycerides, high blood pressure and female relatives with infertility, hirsutism and menstrual problems.
Presently, we do not understand why one woman who demonstrates polycystic appearing ovaries on ultrasound has regular menstrual cycles and no signs of excess androgens while another develops PCOS. One of the major biochemical features of polycystic ovary syndrome is insulin resistance accompanied by compensatory hyperinsulinemia (elevated fasting blood insulin levels). There is increasing data that hyperinsulinemia produces the hyperandrogenism of polycystic ovary syndrome by increasing ovarian androgen production, particularly testosterone and by decreasing the serum sex hormone binding globulin concentration. The high levels of androgenic hormones interfere with the pituitary ovarian axis, leading to increased LH levels, anovulation, amenorrhea, recurrent pregnancy loss, and infertility. Hyperinsulinemia has also been associated high blood pressure and increased clot formation and appears to be a major risk factor for the development of heart disease, stroke and type II diabetes.
There is little agreement when it comes to how PCOS is diagnosed. Most physicians will consider this diagnosis after making sure you do not have other conditions such as Cushing's disease (overactive adrenal gland), thyroid problems, congenital adrenal hyperplasia or increased prolactin production by the pituitary gland. TSH, 17-hydroxyprogesterone, prolactin and a dexamethasone suppression test may be advisable. After reviewing your medical history, your physicians will determine which tests are necessary. If you have irregular or absent menstrual periods, clues from the physical exam will be considered next. Your height and weight will be noted along with any increase facial or body hair or loss of scalp hair, acne and acanthosis nigricans (a discoloration of the skin under the arms, breasts and in the groin). Elevated androgen levels (male hormones), DHEAS or testosterone help make the diagnosis. A two hour insulin and glucose tolerance test will be obtained. Many physicians tell their patients that insulin values are normal, when in fact the value indicates that insulin may be playing a role in stimulating the development of PCOS. Most labs report levels less than 25-30 miu/ml as normal, while in fact, levels over 10miu/ml on a fasting blood sample suggests that PCOS may be related to hyperinsulinism. As women with polycystic ovary syndrome may be a greater risk for other medical conditions, testing for cardiovascular risk factors such as blood lipids should also be carried out.
Traditional treatments have been difficult, expensive and have limited success when used alone. Infertility treatments include weight loss diets, ovulation medications (Clomiphene,Letrozole, Menopur, Gonal-F), ovarian drilling surgery and IVF. Other symptoms have been managed by anti-androgen medication (birth control pills, spironolactone, flutamide or finasteride).
Ovarian drilling can be performed at the time of laparoscopy. A laser fibre or electrosurgical needle is used to puncture the ovary 6-8 times(see picture). This treatment results in a dramatic lowering of male hormones within days. Studies have shown that up to 80% will benefit from such treatment. Many who failed to ovulate with letrozole or metformin therapy will respond when rechallenged with these medications after ovarian drilling. Interestingly, women in these studies who are smokers, rarely responded to the drilling procedure. Side effects are rare, but may result in adhesion formation or ovarian failure if the procedure is performed by an inexperienced surgeon.
For women in the reproductive age range, polycystic ovary syndrome is a serious, common cause of infertility, because of the endocrine abnormalities which accompany elevated insulin levels. There is increasing evidence that this endocrine abnormality can be reversed by treatment with widely available standard medications which are leading medicines used in this country for the treatment of adult onset diabetes, metformin 850 mg two times per day or 1000mg twice daily with meals), Hyponiid (Charak Pharma) (Which is a D-Chiro Inositol containing Indian Ayurvedic Medication) or a combination of these medications. These medications have been shown to reverse the endocrine abnormalities seen with polycystic ovary syndrome within 10-12 months. They can result in decreased hair loss, diminished facial and body hair growth, normalization of elevated blood pressure, regulation or menses, weight loss, reduction in cardiovascular risk factors, normal fertility, and a reduced risk of miscarriage. We have seen pregnancies result in less than 18 months in women who conceived spontaneously at home. By twenty-four months over 90% of women treated with insulin-lowering agents, diet and exercise will resume regular menses.
The medical literature suggests that the endocrinopathy in most patients with polycystic ovary syndrome can be resolved with insulin lowering therapy. This is clinically very important because the therapy reduces hirsutism, obesity, blood pressure, triglyceride levels, elevated blood clotting factors and facilitates re-establishment of the normal pituitary ovarian cycle, thus often allowing resumption of normal ovulatory cycles and pregnancy. We know the polycystic ovary syndrome is associated with increased risk of heart attack and stroke because of the associated heart attack and stroke risk factors, hypertension, obesity, hyperandrogenism, hypertriglyceridemia, and these are to a large degree resolved by therapy with these medications. Side effects are rare. Although metformin, rosiglitazone and pioglitazone lower elevated blood sugar levels in diabetics, when given to nondiabetic patients, they only lower insulin levels. Blood sugar levels will not change. In fact, episodes of "hypoglycemic attacks" appear to be reduced.
When first starting Metformin, people will often experience upset stomach or diarrhea (usually loosely formed stools) which usually resolves after the first couple of weeks. This side effect can be minimized by taking metformin with the heaviest meal of the day and starting with a low dose. I recommend that our patients start with one 850 mg pill daily the first week and increase to twice a day during the second week. Patients with reduced renal function (creatinine >1.5 or creatinine clearance <60%) are at a higher risk for a rare side effect of metformin therapy called lactic acidosis, and the drug should be given cautiously, if at all, to such patients. Patients taking metformin should notify their physician and discontinue the medication. Pioglitazone or Rosiglitazone belong to a class of medications called PPAR gamma agonists. They enhance the ability of smooth muscle to metabolize sugar, thereby reducing insulin resistance. The FDA has recently reviewed the safety of troglitazone (and reports that 35 patients out of approximately 1.5 million have either died or required liver transplant.) Therefore Troglitazone has been removed from the market. As the new alternatives to Troglitazone, Rosiglitazone and Pioglitazone are metabolized by different liver enzymes, experience has shown that these medications appear to pose minimal risk of hepatotoxicity.
Transvaginal follicular studies are done to determine if you are ovulating.You will be asked to return three months after initiating therapy. If you have ovulated, therapy may be continued another three months to see if you will conceive. Re-evaluation will include measurements of lab tests that were abnormal at the initial evaluation. If the laboratory studies are still abnormal, metformin may be increased up to 1000 mg three times daily or rosiglitazone may be substituted alongwith addition of higher doses of Hyponiid. If the laboratory studies are normal but ovulation has not occured, a trial of letrozole may be considered. We have seen that women who were unable to ovulate on up to 250 mg of clomiphene ovulate when very low doses of clomiphene or letrozole are used in conjunction with metformin or PPARgamma therapy. Laparoscopic ovarian drilling may be considered for those women where other indications for laparoscopy are present.
While safety during pregnancy has not yet been established, reports have been published of patients who continued on metformin during their entire pregnancy and one who remained on a glitazone have delivered normal babies. There are no reports of abnormal babies in women who conceived using metformin and all resulting babies were normal. Metformin is a category B medication. This means that insufficient human data is available but no credible animal data suggesting a teratogenic (could produce birth defects) risk. Although to the best of our present knowledge the risk of birth defects would be small, it must also be noted that maternal diabetes has been associated with an increased risk of birth defects and the underlying elevated insulin levels may lead to birth defects if not corrected.
While the most prudent policy may be to avoid the use of these medications during pregnancy until more data on pregnancy outcome is available, the risk of miscarriage may be reduced by continuing metformin during the pregnancy. Women with PCOS who conceive either spontaneously or after ovulation induction have a much higher risk of miscarriage. Hypersecretion of LH was thought to cause chromosomally abnormal eggs leading to an increased risk of miscarriage. But a Japanese study found that PCOS was more common in women whose prior loss was associated with normal chromosomes. Others have suggested that high androgen levels may be a contributory factor. Homburg has shown that miscarriage rates after ovulation induction or IVF is decreased when women are pretreated with a GnRH-agonist such as Synarel, Lupron or Zoladex.
Hyperinsulinemia may be a contributing factor in the higher rate of miscarriage. Elevated levels of insulin interfere with the normal balance between factors promoting blood clotting and those promoting breakdown of the clots. Increases in plasminogen activator inhibitor activity (PAI) associated with high insulin levels may result in increased blood clotting at the interface between the uterine lining (endometrium) and the placenta. This could lead to placental insufficiency and miscarriage.
There are no placebo-controlled clinical trials to indicate whether pregnancy outcomes are improved in pregnancies that result from the use of insulin-lowering medications or whether pregnancy outcomes are better in those who continue metformin throughout the pregnancy or those who discontinue. At present there is insufficient data to routinely advise continuation of metformin during pregnancy. As an alternative to continuing metformin therapy, those women with increased risk of abnormal blood clotting may benefit from baby aspirin, folate supplementation and low molecular weight heparin therapy.