New Guideline Offers Recommendations for Reproductive Health in Patients With Rheumatic Diseases

Steve Cimino

March 05, 2020


A new guideline from the American College of Rheumatology offers the organization's first clinical recommendations on how to manage reproductive health issues in patients with rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases (RMDs).

Dr Lisa Sammaritano - Bruce Jancin/MDedge News

"With the development of this guideline, the ACR recognizes the key role of clinical rheumatologists not only in managing disease activity but also in understanding the interactions of RMDs and their therapies in the context of reproductive health," wrote Lisa R. Sammaritano, MD, of Weill Cornell Medicine and the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, and coauthors. The guideline was published in was published in Arthritis & Rheumatology .

To develop an evidence-based guideline on reproductive health in RMD patients, the researchers embarked on a systematic review of studies in areas like contraception, pregnancy and lactation, assisted reproductive technology (ART), fertility preservation, and hormone therapy. The guideline contains 12 ungraded good practice statements and 131 graded recommendations, all developed through the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development, and Evaluation methodology.

In counseling patients about these areas of care, the guideline says that rheumatologists and other clinicians "must collaborate with specialists in the fields of obstetrics-gynecology, maternal-fetal medicine, and reproductive endocrinology and infertility."

Dr Alison Cahill - Mitchel L. Zoler/Frontline Medical News

"One thing this guideline does well is highlight the importance of involving maternal-fetal medicine colleagues," Alison Cahill, MD, a professor in the department of women's health at the University of Texas at Austin and a maternal-fetal medicine specialist within UT Health Austin's Women's Health Institute, said when asked for comment on the guideline. "We're always very happy to see patients ahead of time who are planning pregnancy to be able to discuss what the care plan would look like. And specifically, to address medications, if required, for their rheumatologic care."

"As we learn more and more," she added, "we've come to understand that most treatments and medications are actually safe or relatively safe to take in pregnancy. Certainly, the benefit of taking them outweighs any small or theoretic risks. On the flip side, the guideline does a nice job of highlighting the importance of good disease control, both at the time of conception and during pregnancy."


In regard to contraception, the guideline strongly recommends the use of effective contraceptives – with a conditional recommendation of IUDs or a subdermal progestin implant – in fertile women with a RMD who have neither systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) nor positive antiphospholipid antibody (aPL). They also strongly recommend discussing the use of emergency contraception with all RMD patients.

For SLE patients, the guideline strongly recommends the use of effective contraceptives in those with stable or low disease activity who are not positive for aPL. They also strongly recommend progestin‐only or IUD contraceptives over combined estrogen‐progestin contraception. For aPL-positive patients, the guideline strongly recommends against combined estrogen‐progestin contraceptives and for levonorgestrel or copper IUDs or the progestin‐only pill.

Assisted Reproductive Technology

In regard to ART, the guideline strongly recommends proceeding as needed in aPL-negative women with uncomplicated, stable RMD who are on pregnancy‐compatible medications. They also strongly recommend deferring ART in any RMD patients with moderately or severely active disease.

For aPL-positive patients undergoing ART procedures, they strongly recommend prophylactic anticoagulation with heparin or low-molecular-weight heparin (LMWH) in women with obstetric antiphospholipid syndrome (APS) and therapeutic anticoagulation in women with thrombotic APS.

In patients undergoing embryo and oocyte cryopreservation, they strongly recommend continuing immunosuppressive and biologic therapies – the exception being cyclophosphamide (CYC) – for anyone in stable condition.

Fertility Preservation

In regard to fertility preservation in patients taking CYC, the guideline strongly suggests sperm cryopreservation as good practice prior to treatment. They also conditionally recommend monthly gonadotropin‐releasing hormone agonist cotherapy in premenopausal women with RMD.

Hormone Therapy

In regard to menopause and hormone therapy, the guideline strongly suggests hormone therapy as good practice in postmenopausal women with RMD, without SLE or positive aPL, and who have severe vasomotor symptoms. Hormone therapy is conditionally recommended in patients with SLE, without positive aPL, and with no contraindications.

For aPL-positive patients, they strongly recommend against hormone therapy in women with obstetric and/or thrombotic APS.

Pregnancy Assessment and Management

Among the many recommendations regarding pregnancy assessment and management, the guideline strongly suggests counseling women with RMD who are considering pregnancy to take into account the improved outcomes for pregnant women with low disease activity.

They strongly recommend that women considering pregnancy should switch to pregnancy‐compatible medication and pause to assess its efficacy and tolerability before moving forward, along with strongly recommending that pregnant women with active disease initiate or continue a pregnancy‐compatible steroid‐sparing medication.

They also recommend testing for anti‐Ro/SS-A and anti‐La/SS-B in women with SLE, Sjögren's syndrome, systemic sclerosis, or rheumatoid arthritis, but only once and only before or early in the pregnancy.

For women with systemic sclerosis who develop scleroderma renal crisis during pregnancy, the authors strongly advise using ACE inhibitors or angiotensin receptor blockers "because the risk of maternal or fetal death with untreated disease is higher than the risk associated with use of these medications during pregnancy."

Among women with SLE, the recommendations strongly call for testing either before or early in pregnancy for anticardiolipin antibody, anti–beta2-glycoprotein I, or positive lupus anticoagulant, as well as initiating or continuing hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) if possible. Starting in the first trimester, the authors also conditionally recommend that SLE patients take low-dose aspirin daily.

For pregnant women who test positive for aPL, but do not meet criteria for obstetric or thrombotic APS, the guideline conditionally recommends prophylactic treatment with low-dose aspirin daily to protect against preeclampsia.

When obstetric APS criteria are met, the guideline strongly advises combined treatment with daily low-dose aspirin and prophylactic-dose heparin (or LMWH), as well as prophylactic-dose anticoagulation for 6-12 weeks postpartum.

When patients have thrombotic APS, this combination treatment should contain heparin dose at a therapeutic level throughout pregnancy and postpartum. However, the authors conditionally recommend against giving low-dose aspirin plus prophylactic-dose heparin to women without obstetric APS.

For refractory obstetric APS, the guideline also contains recommendations that are conditionally against treatment with intravenous immunoglobulin or an increased LMWH dose and strongly against adding prednisone to prophylactic-dose heparin or LMWH and low-dose aspirin. In pregnant patients with primary APS, the authors conditionally advise adding HCQ to prophylactic-dose heparin or LMWH and low-dose aspirin therapy. However, women with aPL who do not meet APS criteria or have another indication for HCQ are conditionally advised against prophylactic treatment with the antimalarial.

For women with Anti-Ro/SS-A and/or anti-La/SS-B antibodies in pregnancy, there is conditional advice to use HCQ. When there is no history of an infant with complete heart block or neonatal lupus erythematosus among women with these antibodies, the guideline conditionally advises serial fetal echocardiography (less often than weekly) starting between 16 and 18 weeks and continuing through 26 weeks, but this should be weekly when there is a prior history. Treatment with oral dexamethasone 4 mg daily is conditionally advised when there is echocardiographic evidence of fetal first- or second-degree heart block, but dexamethasone is not recommended when complete heart block is present.

Finally, in regard to medication use, the authors strongly recommend that men who are planning to be fathers continue on HCQ, azathioprine, 6‐mercaptopurine, colchicine, or tumor necrosis factor inhibitors. Conditional treatment recommendations for men planning for pregnancy include methotrexate, mycophenolate mofetil/mycophenolic acid (MMF), leflunomide, sulfasalazine, calcineurin inhibitors, and NSAIDs. They also strongly recommend that this group of men discontinue CYC and thalidomide.

Pregnant women are strongly recommended to discontinue methotrexate, leflunomide (with cholestyramine washout if there are detectable serum levels of its metabolite prior to pregnancy or as soon as it is confirmed), MMF, CYC, and thalidomide within 3 months prior to conception, and they strongly recommend HCQ (in women with SLE), azathioprine/6‐mercaptopurine, colchicine, or sulfasalazine for use throughout pregnancy. They strongly recommend a combination of low‐dose aspirin and prophylactic‐dose heparin for pregnant women with obstetric APS, along with low‐dose aspirin and therapeutic‐dose heparin for women with thrombotic APS throughout pregnancy and postpartum. However, for women with SLE and those who test positive for aPL but do not meet criteria for obstetric or thrombotic APS, the authors conditionally recommend low-dose aspirin starting in the first trimester.

The guideline suggests that women with RMD should be encouraged to breastfeed if they are willing and able; they also suggest that disease control be maintained through lactation‐compatible medications and that the risks and benefits be reviewed on a patient-by-patient basis. Treatment with HCQ, colchicine, sulfasalazine, rituximab, and all tumor necrosis factor inhibitors are strongly recommended as being compatible with breastfeeding, and they strongly recommend against using CYC, leflunomide, MMF, and thalidomide while breastfeeding.

The authors acknowledged the limitations of their guideline, including the literature review being conducted on studies involving adults and an "inability to include recommendations for uncommon but important clinical situations," including those involving transgender patients and hormonal therapies.

The authors reported numerous potential conflicts of interest, including receiving research support, consulting fees, speaking fees, and honoraria from various pharmaceutical companies.

SOURCE: Sammaritano LR et al. Arthritis Rheumatol. 2020 Feb 23. doi: 10.1002/art.41191.

This article originally appeared on


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.