Rheumatic Diseases and Assisted Reproductive Technology: Things to Consider

Caroline H. Siegel, MD, MS; Karmela Kim Chan, MD


September 14, 2022

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Caroline H. Siegel, MD, MS

The field of "reproductive rheumatology" has received growing attention in recent years as we learn more about how autoimmune rheumatic diseases and their treatment affect women of reproductive age. In 2020, the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) published a comprehensive guideline that includes recommendations and supporting evidence for managing issues related to reproductive health in patients with rheumatic diseases and has since launched an ongoing Reproductive Health Initiative, with the goal of translating established guidelines into practice through various education and awareness campaigns. One area addressed by the guideline that comes up commonly in practice but receives less attention and research is the use of assisted reproductive technology (ART) in patients with rheumatic diseases.

Karmela Kim Chan, MD

Literature is conflicting regarding whether patients with autoimmune rheumatic diseases are inherently at increased risk for infertility, defined as failure to achieve a clinical pregnancy after 12 months or more of regular unprotected intercourse, or subfertility, defined as a delay in conception. Regardless, several factors indirectly contribute to a disproportionate risk for infertility or subfertility in this patient population, including active inflammatory disease, reduced ovarian reserve, and medications.

Patients with subfertility or infertility who desire pregnancy may pursue ovulation induction with timed intercourse or intrauterine insemination, in vitro fertilization (IVF)/intracytoplasmic sperm injection with either embryo transfer, or gestational surrogacy. Those who require treatment with cyclophosphamide or who plan to defer pregnancy for whatever reason can opt for oocyte cryopreservation (colloquially known as "egg freezing"). For IVF and oocyte cryopreservation, controlled ovarian stimulation is typically the first step (except in unstimulated, or "natural cycle," IVF).

Various protocols are used for ovarian stimulation and ovulation induction, the nuances of which are beyond the scope of this article. In general, ovarian stimulation involves gonadotropin therapy (follicle-stimulating hormone and/or human menopausal gonadotropin) administered via scheduled subcutaneous injections to stimulate follicular growth, as well as gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists or antagonists to suppress luteinizing hormone, preventing ovulation. Adjunctive oral therapy (clomiphene citrate or letrozole, an aromatase inhibitor) may be used as well. The patient has frequent lab monitoring of hormone levels and transvaginal ultrasounds to measure follicle number and size and, when the timing is right, receives an "ovulation trigger" — either human chorionic gonadotropin or GnRH agonist, depending on the protocol. At this point, transvaginal ultrasound–guided egg retrieval is done under sedation. Recovered oocytes are then either frozen for later use or fertilized in the lab for embryo transfer. Lastly, exogenous hormones are often used: estrogen to support frozen embryo transfers and progesterone for so-called luteal phase support.

ART is not contraindicated in patients with autoimmune rheumatic diseases, but there may be additional factors to consider, particularly for those with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), antiphospholipid syndrome (APS), and antiphospholipid antibodies (aPL) without clinical APS.

Ovarian stimulation elevates estrogen levels to varying degrees depending on the patient and the medications used. In all cases, though, peak levels are significantly lower than levels reached during pregnancy. It is well-established that elevated estrogen — whether from hormone therapies or pregnancy — significantly increases thrombotic risk, even in healthy people. High-risk patients should receive low-molecular-weight heparin — a prophylactic dose for patients with either positive aPL without clinical APS (including those with SLE) or with obstetric APS, and a therapeutic dose for those with thrombotic APS — during ART procedures.

In patients with SLE, another concern is that increased estrogen will cause disease flare. One case series published in 2017 reported 37 patients with SLE and/or APS who underwent 97 IVF cycles, of which 8% were complicated by flare or thrombotic events. Notably, half of these complications occurred in patients who stopped prescribed therapies (immunomodulatory therapy in two patients with SLE, anticoagulation in two patients with APS) after failure to conceive. In a separate study from 2000 including 19 patients with SLE, APS, or high-titer aPL who underwent 68 IVF cycles, 19% of cycles in patients with SLE were complicated by flare, and no thrombotic events occurred in the cohort. The authors concluded that ovulation induction does not exacerbate SLE or APS. In these studies, the overall pregnancy rates were felt to be consistent with those achieved by the general population through IVF. Although obstetric complications, such as preeclampsia and preterm delivery, were reported in about half of the pregnancies described, these are known to occur more frequently in those with SLE and APS, especially when active disease or other risk factors are present. There are no large-scale, controlled studies evaluating ART outcomes in patients with autoimmune rheumatic diseases to date.

Finally, ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS) is an increasingly rare but severe complication of ovarian stimulation. OHSS is characterized by capillary leak, fluid overload, and cytokine release syndrome and can lead to thromboembolic events. Comorbidities like hypertension and renal failure, which can go along with autoimmune rheumatic diseases, are risk factors for OHSS. The use of human chorionic gonadotropin to trigger ovulation is also associated with an increased risk for OHSS, so a GnRH agonist trigger may be preferable.

The ACR guideline recommends that individuals with any of these underlying conditions undergo ART only in expert centers. The ovarian stimulation protocol needs to be tailored to the individual patient to minimize risk and optimize outcomes. The overall goal when managing patients with autoimmune rheumatic diseases during ART is to establish and maintain disease control with pregnancy-compatible medications (when pregnancy is the goal). With adequate planning, appropriate treatment, and collaboration between obstetricians and rheumatologists, individuals with autoimmune rheumatic diseases can safely pursue ART and go on to have successful pregnancies.

Caroline H. Siegel, MD, MS, is a 2022-2023 UCB Women's Health rheumatology fellow in the Rheumatology Reproductive Health Program of the Barbara Volcker Center for Women and Rheumatic Diseases at Hospital for Special Surgery/Weill Cornell Medicine. Her clinical and research focus is on reproductive health issues in individuals with rheumatic disease.

Karmela Kim Chan, MD, is an assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medical College and an attending physician at Hospital for Special Surgery and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Before moving to New York City, she spent 7 years in private practice in Rhode Island and was a columnist for a monthly rheumatology publication, writing about the challenges of starting life as a full-fledged rheumatologist in a private practice. Follow Dr Chan on Twitter.

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