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Ovulatory Dysfunction

by Robert W. Rebar, MD

Ovulatory dysfunction is abnormal, irregular, or absent ovulation. Menses are often irregular or absent. Diagnosis is often possible by history or can be confirmed by measurement of hormone levels or serial pelvic ultrasonography. Treatment is usually induction of ovulation with clomiphene or other drugs.


Chronic ovulatory dysfunction in premenopausal women is most commonly caused by polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS—see Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)) but has many other causes, including hyperprolactinemia, hypothalamic dysfunction (eg, hypothalamic amenorrhea), and other disorders that cause anovulatory amenorrhea (see Some Causes of Anovulatory Amenorrhea).

Symptoms and Signs

Ovulatory dysfunction is suspected if menses are absent, irregular, or not preceded by symptoms, such as breast tenderness, lower abdominal bloating, or moodiness.


  • Menstrual history

  • Sometimes basal body temperature monitoring

  • Measurement of urinary or serum hormones or ultrasonography

Anovulation is often apparent based on the menstrual history.

Measuring morning body temperature daily can help determine whether and when ovulation is occurring (see Fertility Awareness?Based Methods of Contraception). However, this method is often inaccurate and has an error margin of 2 days. More accurate methods include home testing kits, which detect an increase in urinary luteinizing hormone (LH) excretion 24 to 36 h before ovulation (requiring daily testing for several days around midcycle, usually beginning about or after cycle day 9), and pelvic ultrasonography, which is used to monitor ovarian follicle diameter and rupture (and should begin in the late follicular phase as well). Also, serum progesterone levels of 3 ng/mL ( 9.75 nmol/L) or elevated levels of one of its urinary metabolites, pregnanediol glucuronide (measured, if possible, 1 wk before onset of the next menstrual period), indicate that ovulation has occurred.

Intermittent or absent ovulation should prompt evaluation for disorders of the pituitary, hypothalamus, or ovaries (eg, PCOS).


  • Clomiphene

  • Possibly metformin if body mass index is 35

  • Gonadotropins if clomiphene is ineffective

Ovulation can usually be induced with drugs. Commonly, chronic anovulation that is not due to hyperprolactinemia is initially treated with the antiestrogen clomiphene citrate. Clomiphene is most effective when the cause is PCOS. Clomiphene 50 mg po once/day is started between the 3rd and 5th day after bleeding begins; it is continued for 5 days. Ovulation usually occurs 5 to 10 days (mean 7 days) after the last day of clomiphene; if ovulation occurs, menses follows within 35 days of the induced bleeding episode. The daily dose can be increased by up to 50 mg every 2 cycles to a maximum of 200 mg/dose as needed to induce ovulation. Treatment is continued as needed for up to 4 ovulatory cycles. Ovulation occurs in 75 to 80% of women treated with clomiphene, but the pregnancy rate is only about 40 to 50%.

Adverse effects of clomiphene include vasomotor flushes (10%), abdominal distention (6%), breast tenderness (2%), nausea (3%), visual symptoms (1 to 2%), and headaches (1 to 2%). Multifetal pregnancy (primarily twins) occurs in about 5%, and ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome occurs in 1%. Ovarian cysts are common. A previously suggested association between clomiphene taken for > 12 cycles and ovarian cancer has not been confirmed.

For women with PCOS, metformin (750 to 1000 mg po bid) may be a useful adjunct in inducing ovulation, particularly if the patient is insulin resistant, as many patients with PCOS are. However, clomiphene alone is more effective than metformin and is just as effective as metformin and clomiphene together. Metformin may be useful for women with a body mass index > 35 and should be considered for women with PCOS and glucose intolerance.

Aromatase inhibitors (usually used to treat postmenopausal breast cancer) induce ovulation and have fewer side effects than clomiphene. Although data are limited, the aromatase inhibitor letrozole (2.5 mg po for 5 days beginning on the 3rd to 5th day after bleeding begins) is being used increasingly when clomiphene is unsuccessful; letrozole has been advocated as a first-line alternative to clomiphene. Because genital disorders may occur in fetuses exposed to this drug, letrozole should be given only after pregnancy is excluded.

For all women with ovulatory dysfunction that does not respond to clomiphene (or letrozole, when used), human gonadotropins (ie, preparations that contain purified or recombinant follicle-stimulating hormone [FSH] and variable amounts of LH) can be used. Several IM and sc preparations with similar efficacy are available; they typically contain 75 IU of FSH activity with or without LH activity. They are usually given once/day, beginning on the 3rd to 5th day after induced or spontaneous bleeding; ideally, they stimulate maturation of 1 to 3 follicles, determined ultrasonographically, within 7 to 14 days. Ovulation is induced with human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) 5,000 to 10,000 IU IM after follicle maturation; criteria for induction may vary, but typically, at least one follicle should be > 16 mm in diameter. However, ovulation is not induced if women are at high risk of multifetal pregnancy or ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome. Risk factors for these problems include presence of > 3 follicles > 16 mm in diameter and preovulatory serum estradiol levels > 1500 pg/mL (or possibly > 1000 pg/mL) in women with several small ovarian follicles. When exogenous gonadotropins are used appropriately, > 95% of women treated with them ovulate, but the pregnancy rate is only 50 to 75%.

After gonadotropin therapy, 10 to 30% of successful pregnancies are multiple. Ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome occurs in 10 to 20% of patients; ovaries can become massively enlarged, and intravascular fluid volume shifts into the peritoneal space, causing potentially life-threatening ascites and hypovolemia. (See also the American Society for Reproductive Medicine guideline Ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome .)

Underlying disorders (eg, hyperprolactinemia—see Galactorrhea : Treatment) are treated. If the cause is hypothalamic amenorrhea, gonadorelin acetate, a synthetic gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) given as a pulsatile IV infusion, can induce ovulation. Doses of 2.5- to 5.0-mcg boluses (pulse doses) regularly q 60 to 90 min are most effective. Gonadorelin acetate is unlikely to cause multifetal pregnancy. Because gonadorelin is no longer available in the US, clomiphene citrate is the first drug used to treat hypothalamic amenorrhea, followed by exogenous gonadotropins, if ovulation induction is unsuccessful.

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