Primary Ovarian Insufficiency Requires Long-term Management of Sequelae

Tara Haelle

May 18, 2021

Primary ovarian insufficiency is not your mother's early menopause, Laurie McKenzie, MD, told attendees at the 2021 annual meeting of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Known previously as primary ovarian failure, the syndrome of primary ovarian insufficiency (POI) no longer refers to a failure in part because of the term's negative connotations but mostly because it's not precisely accurate, said McKenzie, a reproductive endocrinologist and associate professor of ob/gyn. at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center with a joint appointment at Baylor College of Medicine, both in Houston.

"Many of these women, especially early on in diagnosis, may be experiencing some intermittent ovarian function, so it may not be a complete failure of the ovaries," McKenzie said.

Although the condition is not common, affecting about 1% of the female population, "it's the kind of thing that when a gynecologist has someone who has this walk into their office, you really need to know how to address it because these women are understandably very distressed." Lauren Streicher, MD, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University, Chicago, said in an interview after attending the talk.

Women who develop POI lose ovarian activity before age 40, characterized by menstrual disturbance with raised gonadotropins and low estradiol. Symptoms include the hot flushes and night sweats characteristic of estrogen deficiency as well as vaginal symptoms, including dyspareunia and dryness. Other symptoms can include sleep disturbance, mood changes, poor concentration, stiffness, dry eyes, altered urinary frequency, low libido, and lack of energy.

McKenzie urged doctors to ask women about their symptoms if they present with amenorrhea because young women with primary amenorrhea rarely experience symptoms at presentation, "implying that these symptoms are due to estrogen withdrawal rather than estrogen deficiency," she said. Diagnosis involves confirmation of 4-6 months of amenorrhea or oligomenorrhea and two measurements of elevated follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). Following this work-up, clinicians should seek the cause of the condition.

Etiology of POI and Associated Conditions

A wide range of conditions or genetic factors can cause POI or be more likely in patients with POI, McKenzie said. Many women diagnosed with POI have chromosomal abnormalities, and there is no cutoff for genetic testing, she said. Most of these genetic causes (94%) are X chromosome abnormalities, including Turners-associated dysmorphic features, gonadal dysgenesis, and FMR1 anomalies. Autosomal gene mutations could also play a role in POI.

Although women with the full FMR1 mutation (Fragile X syndrome) do not have an increased risk of POI, those with the premutation (55-200 repeats) have a 13%-26% increased risk of developing POI, albeit no increased risk of intellectual disability. About 0.8%-7.5% of women with sporadic POI and up to 13% of women with a family history of POI have this genetic anomaly.

Autoimmune conditions may also develop or be related to POI, including hypothyroidism and adrenal insufficiency, McKenzie said. About 20% of adults with POI will develop hypothyroidism, so testing every 1-2 years is reasonable, though no formal screening guidelines exist. In women whose cause of POI is unknown or in whom you suspect an immune disorder, clinicians may consider screening for 21OH-Ab or adrenocortical antibodies. Patients with a positive 21OH-Ab or adrenocortical antibodies test should be referred to an endocrinologist to test adrenal function and rule out Addison disease.

Though diabetes mellitus has been linked to POI, not enough evidence exists to recommend screening women with POI for diabetes. There's similarly no indication for infection screening, but infections can cause POI. Mumps oophoritis, for example, accounts for 3%-7% of POI cases. Cancer therapy, including radiotherapy and chemotherapy, and surgical treatment for cancer can result in POI.

"Smoking, alcohol, nutrition, and exposure to endocrine disruptors are implicated as influencing the age of menopause but are not readily diagnosable causes of POI," McKenzie said. "Although not proven to cause POI, cigarette smoking is toxic to the ovaries and has been linked to an earlier age at menopause." Then there are many women whose cause of POI is unknown.

To take all these possibilities into account, McKenzie described the complete diagnostic work-up recommended by ACOG:

  • Menstrual irregularity for at least 3-4 months

  • Test FSH and estradiol

  • Test hCG, TSH, and prolactin

  • If diagnosis is confirmed, test karyotype, FMR1 premutation, adrenal antibodies, and a pelvic sonogram.

However, she added during the Q&A after her talk, she is not sure why a sonogram is recommended or what additional information it might provide.

Long-term Consequences of POI

McKenzie noted that one study found a 2-year reduction in life expectancy among women who developed menopause before age 40. The reduced life expectancy linked to untreated POI is primarily caused by cardiovascular disease, she said. Women who undergo menopause aged between 35 and 40 years have a 50% greater risk of death related to ischemic heart disease than those ages 49-51, after adjusting for other comorbidities and confounders.

"Women with primary ovarian insufficiency should be advised on how to reduce cardiovascular risk factors by not smoking, taking regular exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight," McKenzie said.

No Interventions Have Been Shown to Increase Ovarian Activity

Though fertility is substantially reduced in women with POI, it may not be completely gone. Several studies have found pregnancy rates ranging from 1.5% to 4.8%, and one study found that 25% of women with idiopathic POI had some evidence of ovarian function. Clinicians should therefore recommend women with POI use contraception if they do not want to conceive. Egg donation is an option for preserving fertility in women with POI but only before POI is solidly established.

"No interventions have been reliably shown to increase ovarian activity and natural conception rates," McKenzie said.

For women who survive childhood or adolescent cancer and become pregnant, no evidence has shown an increased risk of congenital anomalies, but risk of low birth weight is elevated in babies whose mothers received anthracyclines. Treatment with anthracyclines and mediastinal radiotherapy have also been linked with cardiomyopathy and heart failure, so an echocardiogram prior to pregnancy is indicated in women with exposure to these or high-dose cyclophosphamide.

Abdominopelvic radiotherapy, however, has been linked to poor uterine function with a greater risk of late miscarriage, prematurity, low birth weight, stillbirth, neonatal hemorrhage, and postpartum hemorrhage.

"Pregnancies in women with Turner syndrome are very high risk and may have a maternal mortality as high as 3.5%," McKenzie said, so these pregnancies require involvement of a cardiologist.

Other sequelae of POI can include increased bone resorption, net loss of bone (2%-3% annually soon after menopause) and reduced bone mineral density. Women should be getting 1,000 mg/day of calcium and 800 IU/day of vitamin D, but bone screening remains controversial in the field. Finally, providers should not ignore psychosocial effects of POI, including grief, diminished self esteem, and sadness, even more so, potentially, among adolescents.

Treatment of POI

Managing POI involves a two-pronged strategy of providing enough estrogen (estradiol, ethinyl estradiol, or conjugated equine estrogens) to mimic normal physiology and enough progestogen (synthetic or progesterone) to protect the endometrium from the mitogenic effect of estrogen.

The two primary options are hormone therapy and combination oral contraceptives. Hormone therapy might allow ovulation and pregnancy in some women, but combination oral contraceptive may feel less stigmatized in those who are still young, albeit with a potential risk for venous thromboembolism.

Continuous treatment tends to be easier and can involve breakthrough bleeding in younger patients; in postmenopausal women, breast cancer risk is higher but endometrial cancer risk is lower. Cyclic treatment mimics the endometrium's normal function, resulting in bleeding that may help some women feel more "normal" and aids in knowing about a pregnancy. Those wanting to avoid bleeds and use contraception can use the levonorgestrel IUD off label.

Streicher said in an interview, "Not only is it critically important to recognize [long-term consequences] in this small group of women, but the lessons learned from young women who go though menopause can absolutely be extrapolated to women who go through menopause at an appropriate time."

McKenzie had no disclosures. Streicher has consulted for Astellas Pharma and Church & Dwight, and she owns investments in InControl Medical and Sermonix Pharmaceutical.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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