Approach to Secondary Amenorrhea


Whereas Primary Amenorrhea is defined as a lack of menses in a woman who had never previously menstruated, Secondary Amenorrhea is:

  • Cessation of menses for 6 months, in a female who was previously menstruating.

The causes of Secondary Amenorrhea are different from those causing Primary Amenorrhea:

  • Pregnancy, lactation, menopause: 95%
  • Other causes: 5%
    • ↓gonadotrophic ↓gonadism: 66%
      • (including hypothalamic abnormalities, PCOS)
    • ↑ PRL: 13%
    • Ovarian failure: 12%
    • Anatomic abnormality: 7%
    • ↑ androgens: 2%

To evaluate Secondary Amenorrhea, a thorough history and physical exam are of course of vital importance. Since these patients by definition have menstruated in the past, the overriding question to answer is, “what is now stopping this patient from having menses?” In the vast majority of cases, normal pregnancy or menopause drives the amenorrhea. Many of the topics to discuss are the same as in the assessment of Primary Amenorrhea, but also talk to the patient about:

  • Symptoms of menopause: hot flushing, vaginal dryness, poor sleep, decreased libido
  • Obs/Gyn history: past endometritis, D&C, significant hemorrhage. These factors may point to a diagnosis of Asherman’s syndrome (scarring of endometrium).
  • Pregnancy: Potential for pregnancy, currently breastfeeding
  • Lifestyle factors such as stress, nutrition, exercise, weight changes
  • Medication: THC, antipsychotics, or irradiation
  • Associated symptoms:
    • Hyperprolatinemia: galactorrhea
    • Hyperandrogenism: hair loss/excess, acne, voice change
    • CNS tumor: headaches, visual field deficits, polyuria/polydipsia
    • Family history: PCOS

physical exam

  • Vitals, height, weight
  • Breasts: galactorrhea?
  • Thyroid: exopthalmos, goiter, abnormal deep tendon reflexes
  • Hyperandrogenism: hirsuitism, acne, hair loss
  • Hypercortisolemia: striae, hyperpigmentation
  • Pelvic exam

The labs used to work up Secondary Amenorrhea can be quite informative:

  • βHCG: To rule out pregnancy.
  • TSH, PRL: To test for hypo/hyperthyroidism and hyperprolactinemia.
  • LH, FHS: For practicality’s sake, these would probably be ordered at the same time as TSH, PRL.
    • If levels are high may indicate premature ovarian failure.
    • If levels are very low, that may point to a sellar tumor, so obtain an MRI.
    • If levels are normal, there may be a functional hypothalamic cause for the amenorrhea (e.g., malnutrition).
  • +/- Androgens (testosterone, DHEAS, 17-alpha-hydroxyprogesterone): May indicate PCOS or androgen-secreting tumor
  • +/- Estradiol: These assays lack sensitivity, standardization, and only capture a single time point.
  • Progestin challenge: To test the patient’s estrogen status. Administer a course of progesterone (~ 7 days).
    • If this results in bleeding, there is evidence the patient is progesterone deficient, anovulatory, or has an androgen excess.
    • If there is a lack of withdrawal bleeding, there are still a few causes to examine, so try the estrogen/progesterone challenge.
  • Estrogen/progesterone challenge: Give a course of estrogen/progesterone.
    • If there is withdrawal bleeding, it is apparent the patient has an estrogen deficiency.
    • If there is no bleeding in response to the challenge, the suspicion for an anatomic abnormality is heightened, so visualization of the uterus is indicated (e.g., hysteroscopy).

Treatment goals

  • Treat underlying cause
    • Lifestyle
    • Discontinue offending medications
    • Surgery (e.g., lysis of intrauterine adhesions)
  • Preserve fertility
  • Reduce risk of complications
    • Young women with premature ovarian failure can take hormone replacement to protect against early bone loss, menopause symptoms, and improve sexual health. These benefits may outweigh the associated increase in risk of MI, stroke, or breast cancer.

Master-Hunter T, Heiman DL. 2006. Amenorrhea: evaluation and treatment; 73:1374.
The Practice Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. 2008. Current approach to amenorrhea. Fertility and Sterility;90:S219.
Welt CK, Barieri RL. Etiology, diagnosis, and treatment of secondary amenorrhea. In: UpToDate (Eds: Snyder PJ, Crowley Jr WF, Kirkland JL). Accessed 2013.10.05.

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