Endometriosis is a condition that occurs when the uterine lining (endometrium) grows not only in the interior of the uterus but in other areas, such as the Fallopian tubes, ovaries and the bowel. Endometriosis is a complex condition where, the lack or relative absence of an overt anatomical barrier to fertility often belies the true extent of reproductive problem(s).
All too often the view is expounded that the severity of endometriosis-related infertility is inevitably directly proportionate to the anatomical severity of the disease itself, thereby implying that endometriosis causes infertility primarily by virtue of creating anatomical barriers to fertilization. This over-simplistic and erroneous view is often used to support the performance of many unnecessary surgeries for the removal of small innocuous endometriotic lesions, on the basis of such “treatment” evoking an improvement in subsequent fertility.
It is indisputable that even the mildest form of endometriosis can compromise fertility. It is equally true that, mild to moderate endometriosis is by no means a cause of absolute “sterility”.
Rather, when compared with normally ovulating women of a similar age who do not have endometriosis, women with mild to moderate endometriosis are about four to six times less likely to have a successful pregnancy.Endometriosis often goes unnoticed for many years. Such patients are frequently, erroneously labeled as having “unexplained infertility”, until the diagnosis is finally clinched through direct visualization of the lesions at the time of laparoscopy or laparoscopy. Not surprisingly, many patients with so called “unexplained” infertility, if followed for a number of years, will ultimately reveal endometriosis.
Women who have endometriosis are far more likely to be infertile. There are several reasons for this:
- First-Ovulation Dysfunction: In about 25 – 30% of cases, endometriosis is associated with ovulation dysfunction. Treatment requires controlled ovarian stimulation (COS). The problem is that the toxic pelvic environment markedly reduces the likelihood that anything other than IVF will enhance pregnancy potential.
- Second- Toxic Pelvic environment that compromises Fertilization Endometriosis is associated with the presence of toxins in peritoneal secretions while it is tempting to assert that normally ovulating women with mild to moderate endometriosis would have no difficulty in conceiving if their anatomical disease is addressed surgically or that endometriosis-related infertility is confined to cases with more severe anatomical disease…nothing could be further from the truth. The natural conception rate for healthy ovulating women in their early 30’s (who are free of endometriosis) is about 15% per month of trying and 70% per year of actively attempting to conceive. Conversely, the conception rate for women of a comparable age who have mild or moderate pelvic endometriosis (absent or limited anatomical disease) is about 5-6% per month and 40% after 3 years of trying. As sperm and egg(s) travel towards the fallopian tubes they are exposed to these toxins which compromise the fertilization process. In fact it has been estimated that there is a 5-6 fold reduction in fertilization potential because of these toxins which cannot be eradicated. Frankly, it really does not matter whether an attempt is made to remove endometriosis deposits surgically as this will not improve pregnancy potential. The reason is that for every deposit observed, there are numerous others that are in the process of developing and are not visible to the naked eye and whether visible or not, such translucent deposits still produce toxins. This also explains why surgery to remove visible endometriosis deposits, controlled ovarian stimulation with or without intrauterine insemination will usually not improve pregnancy potential. Only IVF, through removing eggs before they are exposed to the toxic pelvic environment, fertilizing them in-vitro and then transferring the embryos to the uterus represents the only way to enhance pregnancy potential.
- Third-Pelvic adhesions and Scarring: In its most severe form, endometriosis is associated with scarring and adhesions in the pelvis, resulting in damage to, obstruction or fixation of the fallopian tubes to surrounding structures, thereby preventing the union of sperm and eggs.
- Fourth-Ovarian Endometriomas, Advanced endometriosis is often associated with ovarian cysts (endometriomas/chocolate cysts) that are filled with altered blood and can be large and multiple. When these are sizable (>1cm) they can activate surrounding ovarian connective tissue causing production of excessive male hormones (androgens) such as testosterone and androstenedione. Excessive ovarian androgens can compromise egg development in the affected ovary (ies) resulting in an increased likelihood of numerical chromosomal abnormalities (aneuploidy) and reduced egg/embryo competency”. In my opinion large ovarian endometriomas need to be removed surgically or rough sclerotherapy before embarking on IVF.
- Fifth- Immunologic Implantation Dysfunction (IID). Endometriosis, regardless of its severity is associated with immunologic implantation dysfunction linked to activation of uterine natural killer cells (NKa) and cytotoxic uterine lymphocytes (CTL) in about 30 of cases. This is diagnosed by testing the woman’s blood for NKa using the K-562 target cell test or by endometrial biopsy for cytokine analysis, and, for CTL by doing a blood immunophenotype. These NKa attack the invading trophoblast cells (developing “root system” of the embryo/early conceptus) as soon as it tries to gain attachment to the uterine wall. In most cases, this results in death of the embryo even before the pregnancy is diagnosed and sometimes, in a chemical pregnancy or even an early miscarriage. . As such, many women with endometriosis, rather than being infertile, in the strict sense of the word, often actually experience repeated undetected “mini-miscarriages”.
Advanced Endometriosis: In its most advanced stage, anatomical disfiguration is causally linked to the infertility. In such cases, inspection at laparoscopy or laparoscopy will usually reveal severe pelvic adhesions, scarring and “chocolate cysts”. However, the quality of life of patients with advanced endometriosis is usually so severely compromised by pain and discomfort, that having a baby is often low on the priority list. Accordingly, such patients are usually often more interested in relatively radical medical and surgical treatment options (might preclude a subsequent pregnancy), such as removal of ovaries, fallopian pubis and even the uterus, as a means of alleviating suffering.
Moderately Severe Endometriosis. These patients have a modest amount of scarring/ adhesions and endometriotic deposits which are usually detected on the ovaries, Fallopian tubes, bladder surface and low in the pelvis, behind the uterus. In such cases, the Fallopian tubes are usually opened and functional.
Mild Endometriosis: These patients who at laparoscopy or laparotomy are found to have no significant distortion of pelvic anatomy are often erroneously labeled as having “unexplained” infertility. To hold that the there can only infertility can only be attributed to endometriosis if significant anatomical disease can be identified, is to ignore the fact that, biochemical, hormonal and immunological factors profoundly impact fertility. Failure to recognize this salient fact continues to play havoc with the hopes and dreams of many infertile endometriosis patients.
The following basic concepts apply to management of endometriosis-related infertility:
- Controlled Ovulation stimulation (COS) with/without intrauterine insemination (IUI): Toxins in the peritoneal secretions of women with endometriosis exert a negative effect on fertilization potential regardless of how sperm reaches the Fallopian tubes. This helps explain why COS with or without IUI will usually not improve the chances of pregnancy (over no treatment at all) in women with endometriosis. IVF is the only way by which to bypass this problem.
- Laparoscopy or Laparotomy Surgery aimed at restoring the anatomical integrity of the Fallopian tubes does not counter the negative influence of toxic peritoneal factors that inherently reduce the chances of conception in women with endometriosis four to six fold. Nor does it address the immunologic implantation dysfunction (IID) commonly associated with this condition. Pelvic surgery is relatively contraindicated for the treatment of infertility associated with endometriosis, when the woman is more than 35 years of age. With the pre-menopause approaching, such women do not have the time to waste on such less efficacious alternatives. In contrast, younger women who have time on their side might consider surgery as a viable option. Approximately 30 -40 percent of women under 35 years of age with endometriosis will conceive with in two to three years following corrective pelvic surgery.
- Sclerotherapy for ovarian endometriomas (“chocolate” cysts). About 15 years ago I introduced “sclerotherapy”, a relatively non-invasive, safe and effective outpatient method to permanently eliminate endometriomas without surgery being required. Sclerotherapy for ovarian endometriomas involves needle aspiration of the liquid content of the endometriotic cyst, followed by the injection of 5% tetracycline into the cyst cavity. Treatment results in disappearance of the lesion within 6-8 weeks, in more than 75% of cases so treated. Ovarian sclerotherapy can be performed under local anesthesia or under general anesthesia. It has the advantage of being an ambulatory office- based procedure, at low cost, with a low incidence of significant post-procedural pain or complications and the avoidance of the need for laparoscopy or laparotomy.
- The role of selective immunotherapy More than half of women who have endometriosis harbor antiphospholipid antibodies (APA) that can compromise development of the embryo’s root system (trophoblast). In addition and far more serious, is the fact that in about one third of cases endometriosis, regardless of its severity is associated with NKa and cytotoxic uterine lymphocytes (CTL) which can seriously jeopardize implantation. This immunologic implantation dysfunction (IID) is diagnosed by testing the woman’s blood for APA, for NKa (using the K-562 target cell test or by endometrial biopsy for cytokine activity) and, for CTL (by a blood immunophenotype). Activated NK cells attack the invading trophoblast cells (developing “root system” of the embryo/early conceptus) as soon as it tries to gain attachment to the uterine wall. In most cases, this results in rejection of the embryo even before the pregnancy is diagnosed and sometimes, in a chemical pregnancy or an early miscarriage. . As such, many women with endometriosis, rather than being infertile, in the strict sense of the word, often actually experience repeated undetected “mini-miscarriages” Women who harbor APA’s often experience improved IVF birth rates when heparinoids (Clexane/Lovenox) are administered from the onset of ovarian stimulation with gonadotropins until the 10th week of pregnancy. NKa is treated with a combination of Intralipid (IL) and steroid therapy: Intralipid (IL) is a solution of small lipid droplets suspended in water. When administered intravenously, IL provides essential fatty acids, linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid.IL is made up of 20% soybean oil/fatty acids (comprising linoleic acid, oleic acid, palmitic acid, linolenic acid and stearic acid) , 1.2% egg yolk phospholipids (1.2%), glycerin (2.25%) and water (76.5%).IL exerts a modulating effect on certain immune cellular mechanisms largely by down-regulating NKa. The therapeutic effect of IL/steroid therapy is likely due to an ability to suppress pro-inflammatory cellular (Type-1) cytokines such as interferon gamma and TNF-alpha. IL/steroids down-regulates NKa within 2-3 weeks of treatment the vast majority of women experiencing immunologic implantation dysfunction. In this regard IL is just as effective as Intravenous Gamma globulin (IVIg) but at a fraction of the cost and with a far lower incidence of side-effects. Its effect lasts for 4-9 weeks when administered in early pregnancy.
- The role of IVF: The toxic pelvic environment caused by endometriosis, profoundly reduces natural fertilization potential. As a result normally ovulating infertile women with endometriosis and patent Fallopian tubes are much less likely to conceive naturally, or by using fertility agents alone (with or without intrauterine (IUI) insemination. The only effective way to bypass this adverse pelvic environment is through IVF. I am not suggesting here that all women who have endometriosis require IVF! Rather, I am saying that in cases where the condition is further compromised by an IID associated with NKa and/or for older women(over 35y) who have diminished ovarian reserve (DOR) where time is of the essence, it is my opinion that IVF is the treatment of choice.