Saturday, January 30, 2010

A hidden cause of ‘unexplained’ infertility and miscarriages: ignorance about AS

Asherman’s syndrome remains a cause of infertility –ie. the inability to conceive or carry a pregnancy- the latter sometimes resulting in repeat miscarriages- which is often overlooked. This is because both doctors and women alike are often unaware of this ‘syndrome’ which rarely gets a mention outside of infrequent gynecological journal articles or anti-abortion propaganda (which ignores the fact that a D&C for any reason or intrauterine surgery can cause the condition). Furthermore, it may be difficult to make a link between a surgery and problems or complications which may occur years later. Another reason is that it is incorrectly thought of as being a rare condition, despite reports of up to 30% of women developing intrauterine adhesions (IUA) after D&C for missed miscarriage and 25% if D&C is performed following delivery (1,2).

Ironically, perhaps another reason it remains so hidden is due to its very symptoms: infertility and miscarriages. Unfortunately, even among highly educated medical professionals, there remains a tendency to consider women who exhibit these as having other fertility flaws rather than to contemplate that problems could be the result of a routine procedure they or a colleague carried out. I was dismayed to have read so many peer-reviewed medical articles where this view is expressed. In fact, Dr. Joseph Asherman, the doctor who described the condition in detail in 1948 and whose name the condition was coined after, quite strangely believed that "adhesions are certainly not to blame for the incapacity to conceive" (3). Of course, this view is certainly refuted today. I will write about this and other errors Dr Asherman (and others) made in a future blog. With all due respect, one should keep in mind that his speculations were based on what he could extrapolate from the imaging techniques and medical and scientific knowledge available in the 1940s and 1950s. Today we are in a much better position to analyze medical conditions. However many study authors continue to suggest that any failure to achieve pregnancy or live birth after 'successful' treatment of IUA as ‘evidence’ of other additional underlying fertility issues even though there could be endometrial dysfunction due to fibrosis for which there are currently no accurate tests. Current live birth outcomes are around 40% at best. This means that they attribute at least 60% of post AS infertility to hypothetical additional infertility factors. Therefore, secondary infertility is often incorrectly labeled as primary infertility.

It is of no surprise that Asherman's syndrome was first noted in a woman who developed amenorrhea after a postpartum curettage (6). If she had not 'proven' her fertility by giving birth her infertility would surely be ascribed to some other undefined cause. Thus, if a childless woman who has a D&C to treat a miscarriage and develops AS, many doctors are less likely to investigate it and put down her future infertility (and prior miscarriage) to other 'unknown' fertility problems. It does not help that the older a woman, the more likely she is to have a miscarriage and therefore undergo a D&C- and develop AS. Age-related infertility can then be the excuse, and if you are a woman aged 40 or over and have ever been to see a fertility specialist as I have, you will have this drummed into you like a mantra. (On a personal note, this is why it especially sucks to get AS after the miscarriage of a first pregnancy when you are an older woman!!!). Most D&Cs are carried out for miscarriage, and proportionally more miscarriages occur in older women at the same time as their natural fertility is declining.

Also unfortunate is that the indirect association between women who do have other fertility problems and AS is often thought to be a direct association. The correlation is due to the fact that women with fertility problems are more likely to miscarry, and therefore have D&Cs-the cause of AS- however unfortunately some doctors will only look at the simplest assocation. There is a review article (4) which misleadingly describes Mullerian defects (eg. septate uterus) as a cause of AS due to 'stagnation of menstrual debris or old blood inside the uterine cavity'. This assertion has no basis whatsoever, nor have I read any similar claim in any other peer-reviewed medical article. (Note: incidentally, that article which is ironically titled 'Ashermans syndrome (IUA): Has there been any progress over the last 20 years?' is undoubtedly the most unconventional review on Asherman's syndrome I have ever come across. Perhaps I can go into the details of this in a blog of its own). In fact it has already been noted that women with Mullerian defects often have had several miscarriages and D&Cs, and it is the latter which increases their risk of developing AS (5). Furthermore, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that blindly scraping in any uterus, let alone an unusually shaped uterus with a wall in the middle, is likely to result in injury leading to IUA. In reality, the only female population that is ‘predisposed’ to AS is anyone who is likely to undergo D&C or intrauterine surgery more frequently than the 'normal' population, whatever the reason might be. No wonder there is so little sympathy or admission of responsibility by the medical community when it is in their interest to blame the patient’s age or other undefined fertility issues for infertility instead of standard medical care.

Even when menstrual disturbances -which are hallmarks of AS- are reported by patients they are either brushed aside as imaginary, explained as normal for one’s age or following miscarriage, or put down to other ‘proof’ of other fertility problems.

The sayings:

“Science progresses best when observations force us to alter our preconceptions.” (Vera Rubin)

“Those who have excess faith in their theories or in their ideas are not only poorly disposed to make discoveries, but they also make very poor observations.” (Claude Bernard)

come to mind.

The bad news is that if Gyns/ObGyns are missing (intentionally or not) the link between cause and effect (ie. D&C and infertility/miscarriages) and making biased and incorrect assumptions about other causes of infertility to ‘explain’ reproductive outcome failure, this gives less incentive for doctors to replace the current standard of care for miscarriage with drugs such as misoprostol or hysteroscopic removal of retained tissue instead. Instead, these attitudes help to maintain the status quo and enables D&Cs to continue to be used widely and indiscrimminately, ignoring the risks.

The most accurate method for diagnosis of IUA is hysteroscopy because it allows a direct view of the inside of the uterus however it is not routinely carried out during infertility workups. Couples considering artificial reproductive technology (ART) are referred for other diagnostic procedures such as ultrasound and HSG however these may not accurately detect the presence of IUA. Also, there is currently no test available for endometrial function which is essential to proper embryo implantation and successful pregnancy. Unfortunately there are few gynecologists who are trained to perform hysteroscopy. Only 15% of US doctors perform office hysteroscopy (7). In comparison, 100% of urologists use office cytoscopy to evaluate bladder pathology. I find it disconcerting that hysteroscopy is such an underutilized technique and question if this would be the case if those likely to benefit from it were men (similarly, would D&C continue to be used if it caused male infertility?). Perhaps our own inaction and passivity as women are in part to blame. Undergoing IVF in the presence of AS is a very expensive waste of time and once again, it is the patient (and broader community if fertility treatment is government subsidized, as in some countries) who suffers most from it, not the fertility specialists! (on the contrary...) IVF is bound to fail if the cavity is not suited for embryo implantation/growth. Even if a patient has other fertility problems such as blocked tubes or her husband has poor sperm quality, the patient must first correct IUA, if present, to enable her to conceive and carry a pregnancy through IVF.

Prospective studies in women with infertility and/or recurrent miscarriages who underwent diagnostic hysteroscopy revealed AS rates of 19-23.6% (8)(9)(10)(11). In other words, 1 in 4 to 1 in 5 women who are infertile or suffer repeat miscarriages have been shown to have IUA. For this reason, diagnostic hysteroscopy should be considered by any woman with unexplained infertility especially if she has ever had a D&C or intrauterine surgery for ANY reason. It especially makes sense to investigate the cavity further if she is either considering IVF or has had unsuccessful IVF treatments. The recommendation to use hysteroscopy in infertility workups appears to be controversial. Interestingly, diagnostic D&Cs are far more commonly used in gynecology even though they carry more risks and provide zero information about the presence of IUA. In the following

presentation about hysteroscopy, the debate about the use of hysteroscopy is outlined with studies. Provided the doctor performing hysteroscopy is properly trained and experienced (in my opinion many more gynaecologists need to be) the benefits of hysteroscopy in women with infertility or recurrent miscarriage may far outweigh the risks.

Quoting from the presentation:

“It is no more acceptable for a gynecologist to insert a sharp curette into a uterine cavity blindly to discover and remove suspected pathology than it is for an orthopedist to insert a curette into a knee joint blindly.”


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adhesions following spontaneous abortion. Int J Fertil 1982;27(2):117-8.

2. Eriksen, J and Kaestel, C. The incidence of uterine atresia after post-partum
curettage. A follow-up examination of 141 patients. Dan Med Bull 1960;7:50-1.

3. Asherman J. Traumatic intrauterine adhesions and their effect on fertility. Int J Fertil 2:49, 1957.

4. Panayotidis C, Weyers S, Bosteels J, van Herendael B.5. Intrauterine adhesions (IUA): has there been progress in understanding and treatment over the last 20 years? (2009) Gynecol Surg 6(3):197-211.

5. Golan, A, Schneider, D, Avrech, O, Raziel, A, Bukovsky, I, and Caspi, E.
Hysteroscopic findings after missed abortion. Fertil Steril 1992;58(3):508-10.

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8. Raziel, A, Arieli, S, Bukovsky, I, Caspi, E, and Golan, A. Investigation of the
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9. Preutthipan, S and Linasmita, V. Reproductive outcome following hysteroscopic
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10. Ventolini, G, Zhang, M, and Gruber, J. Hysteroscopy in the evaluation of patients
with recurrent pregnancy loss:

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