Why some women find it hard to get pregnant

Wednesday December 20 2017

“When couples who are ready to start a family are unable to conceive despite extensive planning, multiple doctor’s visits and expensive treatments, it can be emotionally devastating

“When couples who are ready to start a family are unable to conceive despite extensive planning, multiple doctor’s visits and expensive treatments, it can be emotionally devastating." PHOTO | FILE 

By SARAH OOKO
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Sometimes women struggle with infertility problems whose cause cannot be explained.

Despite getting a clean bill of health on the proper functioning of their reproductive organs, these women still find it difficult to become pregnant.

A new study published in the Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism journal has made inroads into the dilemma.

The researchers note that such infertility complications could be as a result of an underactive thyroid gland which was found to affect a woman’s ability to get pregnant, even when the gland is functioning at the low end of the normal range.

WEIGHT GAIN, DEPRESSION

The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped organ located at the base of the neck. It releases the thyroid hormones that control the body’s metabolism (energy usage) whilst regulating vital functions including breathing, temperature levels, cholesterol amounts, heart rate, muscle strength and the central nervous system.

People with an underactive thyroid gland produce insufficient amounts of the hormones required for optimal body functioning. Common symptoms of the disorder include tiredness, weight gain, feeling depressed, being sensitive to the cold, muscle aches and dry skin or hair.

Individuals with poorly performing thyroid gland usually have higher levels of a type of hormone known as the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) that ‘pushes’ the gland and urges it to produce more hormones when needed.

The study found that women who have unexplained infertility were nearly twice more likely to have higher levels of TSH levels (signalling an underactive thyroid gland) than women whose cause of infertility — such as male partner’s sperm count — was known.

“When couples who are ready to start a family are unable to conceive despite extensive planning, multiple doctor’s visits and expensive treatments, it can be emotionally devastating,” said Dr Pouneh Fazeli, lead author of the study from US-based Harvard Medical School.

“Since our study shows that women with unexplained infertility have higher TSH levels compared to women experiencing infertility due to a known cause, more research is needed to determine whether treating these higher TSH levels with thyroid hormone can improve their chances of getting pregnant.”

MISDIAGNOSIS

He noted that the next step after this study would be to find out if lowering TSH levels will help the affected group of women to effectively manage the condition and conceive. The TSH is produced by the pituitary gland at the base of the brain.

During the research period, the scientists analysed data from female patients between the ages of 18 and 39 who were diagnosed with infertility at Partners HealthCare System hospitals in Boston, Massachusetts, between 2000 and 2012.

Currently, there is no way of preventing an underactive thyroid as most cases are usually caused by the immune system attacking the thyroid gland whilst destroying it. The gland can also be damaged by certain treatments for the condition as well thyroid cancer which are usually ‘harsh’ to the thyroid gland.

As symptoms of the disorder are often similar to those of other conditions, many people fail to take them seriously until the ailment worsens many years later. And even if they were to visit a doctor with those symptoms, affected individuals are usually prone to misdiagnosis unless they are dealing with clinicians that have dealt with numerous thyroid problems.

Health experts note that the only accurate way of identifying those with the condition is through a test known as a thyroid function test where blood samples are tested to measure hormone levels among those suspected to be suffering from the ailment.

The current treatment for the disorder involves taking daily hormone replacement therapy tablets that are administered for life so as to offer patients improved treatment outcomes. If an underactive thyroid is mismanaged or left untreated, it can lead to goitre, heart disease and other life-threatening conditions.