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Patient information: Infertility treatment with gonadotropins (Beyond the Basics)

INTRODUCTION

Infertility is defined as a couple's inability to become pregnant within one year of unprotected intercourse. In any given year, about 15 percent of couples in North America and Europe who are trying to conceive are infertile.

Gonadotropins are hormones (LH and FSH) that can be given in an injection to stimulate a woman's ovaries to produce follicles, which contain an oocyte (egg). Women who have not been able to become pregnant with clomiphene (Clomid®, Serophene®) may be encouraged to try gonadotropins as a next step.

This topic will review who should consider gonadotropins, how they are given, the side effects of treatment, and other procedures that may be used with gonadotropins to increase the chances of pregnancy. The use of clomiphene and the evaluation of infertility are discussed separately. (See "Patient information: Ovulation induction with clomiphene (Beyond the Basics)" and "Patient information: Evaluation of the infertile couple (Beyond the Basics)".)

PREPARING FOR INFERTILITY TREATMENT

Before any infertility treatment begins, a woman and her partner should undergo an evaluation to determine the best course of treatment. This evaluation may include a complete history and physical examination, a semen analysis (for men), blood testing, and other tests depending upon the individual situation. (See "Patient information: Evaluation of the infertile couple (Beyond the Basics)".)

WHAT ARE GONADOTROPINS?

Gonadotropins are two hormones, luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), which are normally produced by the pituitary gland. These hormones stimulate the ovaries to produce a follicle, which contain an egg (oocyte).

Most gonadotropin preparations used for infertility treatment are created in a laboratory (called recombinant preparations) and must be injected under the skin to be effective. For most women, a preparation containing only FSH injections is recommended. Women who do not have regular menstrual periods and who have very low levels of LH and FSH require a preparation containing both LH and FSH.

WHO SHOULD CONSIDER INFERTILITY TREATMENT WITH GONADOTROPINS?

There are two categories of women who may benefit from treatment with gonadotropins:

  • Women who do not ovulate at all or who ovulate irregularly (called anovulation and oligoovulation). Gonadotropins are given in this group to stimulate development of a single follicle and ovulation of a single egg. (See "Patient information: Absent or irregular periods (Beyond the Basics)".)
  • Women who ovulate normally. Gonadotropins may improve the chances of becoming pregnant (with in vitro fertilization or intrauterine insemination) by stimulating the ovaries to produce more than one follicle.

Depending upon the situation, one of several infertility treatments may be recommended. In women who do not ovulate, clomiphene, rather than gonadotropins, is often recommended as an initial treatment. The advantages of clomiphene compared to gonadotropins include ease of oral administration, fewer side effects, lower cost (of the medication itself, as well as the monitoring), lower risk of multiple pregnancies, and reduced time commitment (related to monitoring during treatment). (See "Patient information: Ovulation induction with clomiphene (Beyond the Basics)".)

If the woman has tried clomiphene or if clomiphene is unlikely to be helpful, the next step is often to try ovulation induction with injectable gonadotropins. Gonadotropins may be used along with intrauterine insemination (IUI) or in vitro fertilization. Another option that is sometimes considered for women with polycystic ovary syndrome is laparoscopic minimal surgery of the ovaries. This may help restore ovulation.

GONADOTROPIN PROTOCOL

There are a number of protocols for the type, dosing, and timing of ovulation induction with gonadotropins [1]. The protocol used will depend on the woman's situation and the clinician's preferences. The protocol described below is an example and may differ from your instructions.

  • The first day of menstrual bleeding is considered day one of the cycle. Most providers ask that you call on the first day of bleeding to schedule an appointment for blood tests and an ultrasound.
  • On day three to five, you may be asked to have blood testing to measure hormone levels and a pelvic ultrasound to be sure that there are no large pre-existing cysts on the ovaries. You will be given instructions about the dose and timing of your first injection based upon the results of these tests.

Women vary considerably in their response to FSH injections. Some women require only small doses of FSH to stimulate follicle growth. Other women require large doses of FSH to stimulate follicle growth. In an average patient, the greater the dose of FSH, the greater the likelihood of the growth of many follicles and the greater the likelihood of multiple gestation. Most clinicians prefer to start with small doses of FSH to minimize the risk of the growth of many follicles. If small doses of FSH are utilized, extra days of injections may be required to stimulate follicle growth.

  • In most cases, you will give an injection of gonadotropins once per day, in the evening (between 5 pm and 8 pm, for example). The injection can be given under the skin in most cases.
  • After a few days of injections, you will be asked to have a pelvic ultrasound to measure follicle growth, and possibly a blood test to measure hormone levels. Depending upon the results of these tests, the gonadotropin dose may be increased or decreased. Blood testing and pelvic ultrasound may be repeated three or more times during a cycle.
  • For women who do not ovulate on their own, the goal is to have one follicle that is approximately 15 to 18 mm in size. If three or more follicles (greater than 15 mm each) are seen, the cycle may be cancelled due to the risk of becoming pregnant with twins, triplets, etc [2]. In some situations, the cycle may be converted to in vitro fertilization, so that the clinician can control the number of embryos that are placed in the uterus.

If the cycle is cancelled, you should stop the injections and follow up with your healthcare provider.

  • When blood testing and ultrasound measurements show that the follicle is "ready," you will be instructed to give an injection of hCG to trigger ovulation. hCG is also called human chorionic gonadotropin, Ovidrel®, Pregnyl®, and Novarel®. hCG is usually injected under the skin in the evening.
  • Some women will be instructed to have intercourse at a particular time the following day. In other cases, intrauterine insemination (IUI) will be recommended. (See 'Intrauterine insemination' below.)

Side effects of treatment — Gonadotropins usually do not cause side effects directly. However, the ovaries become somewhat enlarged during treatment, which can cause abdominal discomfort, and in more severe cases, nausea and vomiting. The main risks of gonadotropin therapy are the development of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome and conceiving a multiple pregnancy [1].

Ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS) — OHSS is a condition in which the ovaries become moderately to severely enlarged and multiple follicles develop on the ovaries. In severe cases, the woman may develop severe abdominal pain, vomiting, blood clots in the legs or lungs, and fluid imbalances in the blood. Moderate OHSS occurs in less than 6 percent of cases and severe OHSS occurs in less than 2 percent of women undergoing treatment with gonadotropins.

OHSS can be prevented most of the time by cancelling the cycle when blood estrogen levels are too high or there are too many follicles seen on ultrasound. If the cycle is cancelled, no more injections of gonadotropins are given and the hCG injection will not be given. Depending upon how enlarged the ovaries become, other treatments may be necessary. The next cycle of treatment may be resumed when the ovaries have returned to their normal size.

INTRAUTERINE INSEMINATION

Intrauterine insemination (IUI) places sperm directly inside the woman's uterus, which may increase her chances of becoming pregnant. IUI, in combination with gonadotropins, may be recommended if the woman does not ovulate or when there is another known issue, such as a low sperm count, difficulty ejaculating, or a narrow cervical opening [1], or if the couple's infertility is unexplained [2]. IUI in combination with gonadotropins may increase overall pregnancy chances, but it also increases the chances for multiple pregnancy.

The male partner is usually instructed to obtain a semen sample by masturbating and ejaculating into a sterile container. The man should avoid ejaculating two to three days before collecting the sample. The semen is then prepared in a laboratory to separate the active sperm from the inactive sperm and seminal fluid. The process is similar if donor sperm is used.

Procedure — IUI is usually performed 12 to 36 hours after the woman injects hCG. During IUI, the woman lies on her back on an examination table and rests her feet in supports. A speculum is inserted in the vagina and a long, thin, flexible tube is used to insert the prepared sperm sample through the vagina and cervix inside the uterus. This takes less than five minutes.

The woman may feel some cramping during the procedure, although this usually resolves quickly. After the sperm sample is inserted and the tube is removed, the woman is usually asked to continue lying down for a few minutes. The woman may then resume her normal activities.

Postprocedure care — Serious complications of IUI are uncommon. Common reactions include pelvic cramping, light bleeding, and vaginal discharge. If these problems are persistent or become severe, it is important to call a healthcare provider as soon as possible.

TESTING FOR PREGNANCY AFTER INFERTILITY TREATMENT

Blood testing — Approximately two weeks after IUI or intercourse, a blood or urine test for pregnancy (called hCG) can be done. Home urine pregnancy testing is not as sensitive for detecting an early pregnancy as blood testing.

  • If the first blood hCG level is <5 IU/L, the woman is not pregnant.
  • If the first hCG level is >10 IU/L, the test is usually repeated 48 hours later to confirm that the levels are increasing. The hCG level should double every 29 to 53 hours during the first 30 days.
  • If the second hCG level does not double or decreases, the blood test may be repeated again 48 hours later. Depending upon the situation, there is a possibility that the pregnancy is not viable. hCG levels do not increase or begin to decline when the pregnancy is not progressing normally. (See 'When infertility treatment is not successful' below.)

Ultrasound — If the hCG levels increase as expected, a pelvic ultrasound may be done three to four weeks after ovulation. At this time, it is usually possible to see a gestational sac inside the uterus. The gestational sac is a fluid-filled sac containing the embryo (image 1). At five to six weeks of pregnancy (four to five weeks after ovulation), the yolk sac is usually visible. The yolk sac provides nourishment to the embryo early in development. A heart beat is usually visible by 5.5 to six weeks of pregnancy.

Pregnancy care — In most cases, prenatal care begins at 6 to 10 weeks of pregnancy. At this time, the woman will begin to see her clinician or nurse on a regular basis. These visits allow the provider to monitor the woman and baby's health and to answer any questions.

WHEN INFERTILITY TREATMENT IS NOT SUCCESSFUL

Ovulation induction using gonadotropins and intrauterine insemination has a high rate of success in most cases. However, more than one cycle of treatment is often necessary before pregnancy occurs. Some women will not become pregnant despite multiple attempts. Depending upon the situation, the next step may be to consider in vitro fertilization. (See "Patient information: In vitro fertilization (IVF) (Beyond the Basics)".)

It can be difficult to deal with the emotional highs and lows of infertility treatment. This is especially true if the woman (and her partner) have been trying to conceive for a long time, if treatment is not covered by insurance, and if there are any underlying problems in the couple's life (eg, medical, family or partner, job, financial).

Support groups and counseling services are available at many infertility treatment centers, as well as on the internet. (See 'Where to get more information' below.) To find a reputable group, talk to your healthcare provider.

COSTS OF INFERTILITY TREATMENT

The costs of infertility treatments can be high, depending upon what tests are required, the type and dose of medication(s) used, and the number of cycles required to become pregnant. Insurance policies cover the costs of infertility treatment in some states, although this varies by location and individual insurance policy. Less than half of the states within the US have laws requiring insurers to cover infertility treatment.

More information about a state's laws can be obtained by calling your state Insurance Commissioner's office. Information can also be found by visiting the website for Resolve, a National Infertility organization [3].

WHERE TO GET MORE INFORMATION

Your healthcare provider is the best source of information for questions and concerns related to your medical problem.

This article will be updated as needed on our web site (www.uptodate.com/patients). Related topics for patients, as well as selected articles written for healthcare professionals, are also available. Some of the most relevant are listed below.

Patient level information — UpToDate offers two types of patient education materials.

The Basics — The Basics patient education pieces answer the four or five key questions a patient might have about a given condition. These articles are best for patients who want a general overview and who prefer short, easy-to-read materials.

Patient information: Infertility in women (The Basics)

Patient information: Infertility in men (The Basics)

Patient information: Infertility in couples (The Basics)

Patient information: Endometriosis (The Basics)

Beyond the Basics — Beyond the Basics patient education pieces are longer, more sophisticated, and more detailed. These articles are best for patients who want in-depth information and are comfortable with some medical jargon.

Patient information: Ovulation induction with clomiphene (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Evaluation of the infertile couple (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Absent or irregular periods (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: In vitro fertilization (IVF) (Beyond the Basics)

Professional level information — Professional level articles are designed to keep doctors and other health professionals up-to-date on the latest medical findings. These articles are thorough, long, and complex, and they contain multiple references to the research on which they are based. Professional level articles are best for people who are comfortable with a lot of medical terminology and who want to read the same materials their doctors are reading.

Amenorrhea and infertility associated with exercise
Long-term complications of pelvic inflammatory disease
Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of early pregnancy
Effect of advanced age on fertility and pregnancy in women
In vitro fertilization
Reproductive surgery for female infertility
Management of couples with recurrent pregnancy loss
Overview of ovulation induction
Pathogenesis and treatment of infertility in women with endometriosis
The preconception office visit
Prevention of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome
Procedure for intrauterine insemination (IUI) using processed sperm
Treatment of male infertility
Unexplained infertility
Use of assisted reproduction in HIV and hepatitis infected couples

The following organizations also provide reliable health information.

  • National Library of Medicine

     (www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/healthtopics.html)

  • American Society for Reproductive Medicine

     (www.asrm.org)

  • Resolve: The National Infertility Association

     (www.resolve.org)

Patient Support — There are a number of online forums where patients can find information and support from other people with similar conditions.

     (http://infertility.about.com/forum)

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Literature review current through: Nov 2014. | This topic last updated: Jul 10, 2013.
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