Luteal Phase Dysfunction

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Background

In 1949, Georgeanna Jones, MD, first described luteal phase deficiency (LPD).[1] The inadequate secretory transformation of the endometrium, resulting from deficient progesterone production, has been implicated in both infertility and recurrent pregnancy loss.[2, 3] LPD has been the subject of much debate among specialists in the field of reproductive endocrinology since Jones' introduction of this condition into the medical literature. LPD has been diagnosed in 3-20% of patients who are infertile and in 5-60% of patients experiencing recurrent pregnancy loss. However, data show that 6-10% of women who are fertile demonstrate an inadequate luteal phase, which confirms the need for a better understanding of normal variations in the menstrual cycle and in variations that could be pathologic.

This article addresses healthy menstrual physiology, the proposed pathophysiology of LPD, current methods available for diagnosis and treatment, and reasons for the controversy surrounding this subject.

Healthy menstrual physiology

Following ovulation, the mature ovarian follicle forms the corpus luteum, which becomes a blood-filled structure that allows the precursor cholesterol to be obtained, initiating steroidogenesis and resulting in progesterone production. Whereas the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle can vary in length, the secretory phase lasts approximately 14 days, correlating with the life span of the corpus luteum. Presumably, progesterone prepares the endometrium for implantation and maintenance of a pregnancy. If pregnancy occurs, the production of progesterone from the corpus luteum continues for 7 weeks because of the tonic release of luteinizing hormone (LH) from the pituitary gland. Studies show that after 7 weeks, the placenta takes over this function. If pregnancy does not occur, menses begins with the demise of the corpus luteum.

For related information, see Medscape's Pregnancy Resource Center.

Pathophysiology

The following mechanisms can cause an inadequate endometrial response to hormonal stimulation during the luteal phase.[4]

Abnormal follicular development

Abnormal follicular development results from inadequate follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) secretion from the anterior pituitary gland. FSH stimulates the granulosa cells of the developing follicle to produce estradiol from the conversion of its substrate androstenedione. A decrease in FSH release results in reduced granulosa cell growth and lower estradiol levels. Because the corpus luteum is not a de novo structure but is a direct result of the follicle, it shows the effects of abnormal folliculogenesis with decreased progesterone production.

Abnormal luteinization

An inadequate LH release can cause a decrease in androstenedione from the theca cells. Less substrate results in a decrease in estradiol and, subsequently, lower progesterone levels. Additionally, a suboptimal LH surge at ovulation causes deficient progesterone because of inadequate luteinization of the granulosa cells.

Uterine abnormalities

Uterine abnormalities cause changes in vascularization of the endometrium despite normal progesterone levels. Myomas, uterine septa, and endometritis are responsible for poor secretory changes in the endometrium.

Hypocholesterolemia

Hypocholesterolemia is the substrate responsible for initiation of the steroid pathway. A deficiency results in low-to-absent progesterone production and a luteal phase defect.

Epidemiology

Frequency

United States

No consensus has been achieved regarding frequency; however, a 1991 symposium hypothesized that luteal phase deficiency (LPD) occurs in 3-10% of infertile patients, and healthy women have deficient luteal phase production of progesterone on a sporadic basis.

International

Presumably, international frequency is similar to that in the United States.

Mortality/Morbidity

No morbidity or mortality has been associated with this condition.

Race

Luteal phase deficiency affects women of all races.

Sex

Luteal phase deficiency affects only women.

Age

Luteal phase deficiency primarily affects women during their reproductive years.

History

The patient may report menstrual cycles of less than 26 days or a luteal phase of less than 11 days by basal body temperatures; however, neither of these circumstances can alone be used to diagnose luteal phase deficiency.

Physical

Physical findings that might aid in the diagnosis of luteal phase dysfunction are those associated with abnormal endocrine function.

Causes

See Pathophysiology for a full discussion of the causes.

Laboratory Studies

Imaging Studies

Ultrasound documentation of ovulation from follicular growth to collapse of the follicle is very accurate; however, this procedure is too expensive and time consuming to be realistic in all patients.[5] Ultrasound measurement of endometrial thickness has not been shown to be effective in the prediction of luteal phase deficiency.

Procedures

Medical Care

Medication Summary

The goals of pharmacotherapy in luteal phase deficiency are to restore ovarian function, reduce morbidity, and prevent complications.

Bromocriptine (Parlodel)

Clinical Context:  Used if hyperprolactinemia is the underlying pathology causing LPD. Tablets can be used vaginally in patients who cannot tolerate adverse GI effects.

Levothyroxine (Levoxyl, Synthroid)

Clinical Context:  If LPD is caused by hypothyroidism, correction of endocrine disease results in normal luteal phase.

Clomiphene citrate (Clomid, Serophene)

Clinical Context:  Stimulates release of pituitary gonadotropins. Improves folliculogenesis and, therefore, the luteal phase. Works best in biopsies that are lagging 1 week behind the date of endometrial sampling.

Cabergoline (Dostinex)

Clinical Context:  Long-acting dopamine receptor agonist with high affinity for D2 receptors. Prolactin secretion by anterior pituitary predominates under hypothalamic inhibitory control exerted through dopamine.

Progesterone intravaginal gel

Clinical Context:  Progesterone supplementation may be administered PO, IM, or vaginally. Oral progesterone is metabolized rapidly in liver, and the metabolites have little effect on endometrial activity. When administered IM, fails to achieve adequate levels of endometrial progesterone compared with vaginal forms. Vaginal progesterone is DOC for LPD; this is because of the proximity of the uterus to where the medication is delivered. Vaginal gel 8%, either qd or bid, is better tolerated compared to suppository form. Gel also provides increased receptor sites in the endometrium compared with suppository. Treatment begins 2 days after ovulation as determined by ovulation predictor kit. Correction of LPD can be confirmed by repeat EB.

Follitropins (Follistim, Gonal-F, Fertinex)

Clinical Context:  Improve folliculogenesis, which increases total progesterone. This remains an expensive method associated with increased patient discomfort because medication is administered SC.

Class Summary

Medical treatment centers on hormonal support of the patient's luteal phase.

Further Inpatient Care

Luteal phase dysfunction does not require hospitalization and therefore no inpatient diagnostic workup or treatment.

Further Outpatient Care

All diagnostic testing and treatment can be performed in an outpatient setting.

Inpatient & Outpatient Medications

Deterrence/Prevention

No methodology prevents luteal phase defect. Maintain a high level of clinical suspicion that such a condition exists when seeing a patient with infertility or recurrent pregnancy loss.

Complications

Complications are associated with the endometrial biopsy. Be cautious when performing the biopsy to avoid perforating the uterus. Advise patients to take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) prior to the procedure to alleviate uterine cramping. No antibiotic prophylaxis is needed.

Prognosis

The lack of double-blinded placebo-controlled studies prevents an accurate prognosis for this condition.

Author

Thomas L Alderson, DO, Program Director, Assistant Professor, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Mount Clemens Regional Medical Center, Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editors

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD, Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Salary Employment

A David Barnes, MD, PhD, MPH, FACOG, Consulting Staff, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Mammoth Hospital (Mammoth Lakes, California), Pioneer Valley Hospital (Salt Lake City, Utah), Warren General Hospital (Warren, Pennsylvania), and Mountain West Hospital (Tooele, Utah)

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Frederick B Gaupp, MD, Consulting Staff, Department of Family Practice, Hancock Medical Center

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Richard Scott Lucidi, MD, FACOG, Associate Professor of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

References

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