The Menstrual Cycle
Abnormal Uterine Bleeding
Dysfunctional Uterine bleeding
Excluding pregnancy, there are really only three reasons for abnormal uterine bleeding:
The limited number of possibilities makes your caring for these patients very simple. If the bleeding is heavy, obtain a blood count and assess the rate of blood loss to determine how much margin of safety you have. Someone with a good blood count (hematocrit) and minimal rate of blood loss (less than a heavy period), can tolerate this rate of loss for many days to weeks before the bleeding itself becomes a threat. Determine whether the bleeding is significant enough to begin iron replacement therapy.
A variety of pregnancy problems can cause vaginal bleeding. These include:
If the bleeding patient has a positive pregnancy test, a careful search should be made for each of these problems. However, if the pregnancy test is negative, pregnancy-related bleeding problems are effectively ruled out.
Since mechanical problems have mechanical solutions, these patients will need surgery of some sort (Polypectomy, D&C, Hysteroscopy, Hysterectomy, Myomectomy, etc.) to resolve their problem.
The solution to all of these problems is to find and treat those underlying medical abnormalities that exist, and/or take control of the patient hormonally and insist (through the use of BCPs) that she have normal, regular periods.
If the abnormal bleeding is light and the patient's blood count good, starting low-dose BCPs at the next convenient time will usually result in effective control within a month or two.
If the bleeding is quite heavy or her blood low, then it is best to have the patient lie still while you treat her with birth control pills. Some gynecologists have used 4 BCPs per day initially to stop the bleeding, and then taper down after several days to three a day, then two a day and then one a day. If you abruptly drop the dosage, you may provoke a menstrual flow, the very thing you didn't want.
Alternatively, particularly for those with intractable anovulatory bleeding, plain estrogen in doses of 2.5 up to 25 mg a day can be effective in promoting endometrial proliferation, stopping the bleeding. After the bleeding is initially controlled with estrogen, progesterone is added to stabilize the endometrium, leading up to a hormonal withdrawal flow a week or two later. Two drawbacks to this approach are the nausea that frequently accompanies such large doses of estrogen, and the theoretical risk of thromboembolism among women exposed to large amounts of estrogen while on bed rest.
Giving iron supplements is a good idea (FeSO4 325 mg TID PO or its' equivalent) for anyone who is bleeding heavily.
Cancer of the vagina is extraordinarily rare and will present with a palpable, visible, bleeding lesion on the vaginal wall. Cancer of the cervix is more common but a normal Pap smear and normal exam will effectively rule that out. Should you find a bleeding lesion in either the vagina or on the cervix, these should be biopsied.
Factors that increase the risk for endometrial carcinoma include:
Cancer of the uterus (endometrial carcinoma) occurs most often in the older population (post-menopausal) and is virtually unknown in patients under age 35. For those women with abnormal bleeding over age 40, an endometrial biopsy is a wise precaution during the evaluation and treatment of abnormal bleeding.
One good approach is to give birth control pills to women with these heavy periods. The effect of the BCPs is to reduce the heaviness and duration of flow. If they are anemic, oral iron preparations will usually return their iron stores to normal. If the BCPs (standard, low dose, monophasic pill such as Ortho Novum 1+35, LoOvral or LoEstrin 1.5/30) fail to reduce the flow appreciably, they can be taken continuously, without the usual "week off." This will postpone their menstrual period for as long as several months. Even though their period may still be heavy or lengthy, the fact that they only have it every few months rather than every 4 weeks will have a major impact on their quality of life and anemia, if present.
Alternatively, you could start the patient on DMPA (depot medroxyprogesterone acetate) 150 mg IM Q 3 months. This will usually disrupt the normal period and she probably won't continue to have heavy periods. There are some significant drawbacks to this approach, however. Light spotting or bleeding are common among women taking DMPA, so you will be substituting one nuisance for another nuisance.
If sonohysterography demonstrates an endometrial polyp, removal of the polyp will often restore a normal menstrual flow. OCPs will sometimes reduce the flow due to fibroids enough to allow the patient to tolerate these flows for extended lengths of time.
This condition is most often seen among women taking low dose birth control pills. The birth control pills usually act by blocking the normal ovarian function (production of various hormones and ovulation), and then substituting the hormones (estrogen and progestin) found in the BCPs. Usually, the result of this exchange is that the circulating estrogen levels are about the same as if the woman were not taking BCPs. In some women, however, the estrogen levels are significantly lower than before they started taking the BCPs. In this case, they will notice their menstrual periods getting lighter and lighter (over 3 to 6 months), and possibly even disappearing altogether.
This is not dangerous, has no impact on future fertility, and will resolve spontaneously if the BCPs are stopped. Stopping the BCPs is not necessary, however, because there are other safe alternatives. If the periods are simply very light (1-2 days), you can ignore the problem because this situation poses no threat to the patient.
If periods have totally stopped:
Late for a Period
If the pregnancy test is negative and the patient is not taking hormonal contraception, then simple observation for a single missed period is the usually the wisest course. Delay of periods in operational settings is common. In Boot Camp, among women not on BCPs, about 1/3 of women will skip periods for up to three months. The same observation is found among college freshman women. Presumably, this is a stress response.
If the patient remains without a period for an extended length of time (3 months or more), then the following are often done:
If any of these tests are abnormal or neither Provera nor BCPs are effective in restarting normal periods, gynecologic consultation upon return to garrison is indicated.
If the flows, whenever they come, are normal in character and length, this is not a dangerous condition and no treatment or evaluation is required. If the patient finds the irregular character of her periods to be troublesome, then starting low dose BCPs will be very effective in giving her quite normal, once-a-month menstrual flows.
If the flows, whenever they come, are not consistent; are sometimes heavy, are sometimes light, are sometimes only spotting, then they are likely not true menstrual cycles, but are anovulatory bleeding (uterine bleeding occurring in the absence of ovulation). This condition should be treated with re-establishment of normal, regular periods, usually with BCPs. Unresolved anovulatory bleeding may, over many months to years, lead to cosmetic problems (unwanted hair growth due to relative excess of male hormones) and uterine lining problems (endometrial hyperplasia due to a lack of the protective hormone progesterone).
Patients with infrequent periods, particularly if associated with overweight status, acne, and multiple follicles on the ovary when visualized with ultrasound, usually have "polycystic ovary syndrome." This condition may be effectively treated with OCPs, but also responds well to the use of Metformin.
Patients with hypothyroidism may also have this type of menstrual cycle, and screening for thyroid disease with a TSH is helpful.
Periods that are too frequent (more often than every 26 days, "metrorrhagia") can be related to several predisposing factors:
Women with hyperthyroidism are classically described as experiencing frequent, heavy periods. They, in reality, rarely show that pattern, but we usually screen these patients for thyroid disease anyway.
Normally, small breaks or tears in the uterine lining are promptly repaired. For women who have been bleeding for weeks, with the accompanying uterine cramping, the uterine lining becomes very nearly completely lost. There is so little endometrium left that the woman will have difficulty achieving repair and restoration of the normal lining without external assistance. A common example of this situation would be a teenager who has been bleeding for many weeks but who, through embarrassment, has not sought medical attention. On arrival, she continues to bleed small amounts of bright red blood. She is profoundly anemic, with a hemoglobin of 7.0.
These patients do not respond to simple BCP treatment because the BCPs are so weak in estrogen and so strong in progestin that the uterine lining barely has a chance to grow and cover up the denuded, bleeding areas inside the uterus.
These patients need strong doses of plain estrogen, to effectively stimulate the remaining uterine lining (causing it to proliferate). Premarin, 2.5 to 5 mg PO per day, or IV (25 mg slowly over a few hours) will provide this strong stimulus to the uterine lining and if combined with bedrest, will usually slow or stop the bleeding significantly within 24 hours. The estrogen is stimulating the uterine lining to grow lush and thick. The estrogen is continued for several days, but at lower dosages (1.25 to 2.5 mg per day) until the bleeding completely stops. Then, progesterone is added (Provera 5-10 mg PO per day) for 5-10 days. Progesterone is necessary at this point because the lush, thick uterine lining is also very fragile and easily broken. Progesterone provides a structural strength to the uterine lining, making it less likely to tear or break.
Once a normal, thick, well-supported lining has been re-established, first with estrogen, then with the addition of progesterone, it will need to be shed, just like a normal lining is shed once a month. Stopping all medication will trigger a normal menstrual flow about 3 days later. The lining will have been restored and the vicious cycle of bleeding leading to more endometrial loss leading to more bleeding will be broken. Future periods may then be normal, although many physicians will start BCPs at that point to prevent recurrence of the constant bleeding episode.
Hemorrhage is defined differently by different texts, but three good general guidelines are these:
Vaginal hemorrhage is more often associated with pregnancy complications such as miscarriage or placental abruption, but certainly can occur in the absence of pregnancy.
This is a true medical emergency and a number of precautionary steps should be taken:
In severe cases of hemorrhage when surgical intervention is not immediately available, vaginal packing can slow and sometimes stop bleeding due to vaginal lacerations or uterine bleeding from many causes. After a Foley catheter is inserted in the bladder, a vaginal speculum holds the vaginal walls apart. Tail sponges, long rolls of gauze, 4 X 4's or any other sterile, gauzelike substance can be packed into the vagina. The upper vagina is packed first, with moderate pressure being exerted to insure a tight fit. Then, progressively more packing material is stuffed into the lower vagina, distending the walls. Ultimately, the equivalent of a 12-inch or 16-inch softball sized mass of gauze will be packed into the vagina. This has several effects: 1) any bleeding from the cervix or vagina will have direct compression applied, slowing or stopping the bleeding. 2) The uterus is elevated out of the pelvis by the presence of the vaginal pack, placing the uterine vessels on stretch, slowing blood flow to the uterus and thus slowing or stopping any intrauterine bleeding. 3) By disallowing the egress of blood from the uterus, intrauterine pressure rises to some extent, exerting a tamponade effect on any continuing bleeding within the uterus. Vaginal packing can be left for 1-3 days, and then carefully removed after the bleeding has stopped or stabilized. Sometimes, only half the packing is removed, followed by the other half the following day. The Foley catheter is very important, both to monitor kidney function and to allow the patient to urinate (usually impossible without a Foley with the vaginal packing in place).
OB-GYN 101: Introductory
Obstetrics & Gynecology
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