Symptoms to Diagnosis

An obese 48-year-old man with progressive fatigue and decreased libido

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The patient’s physician orders morning fasting total testosterone, SHBG, and albumin testing and calculates the free testosterone level, which yields a value of 3 ng/dL (reference range 4.5–17). This is confirmed by a repeat measurement, which yields a value of 2.9 ng/dL. Laboratory test results combined with his clinical presentation are consistent with hypogonadism.

2. What is the most appropriate next step?

  • Measurement of serum LH and FSH
  • Measurement of serum prolactin
  • Scrotal ultrasonography
  • Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) stimulation test
  • Semen analysis

After hypogonadism is diagnosed, it is important to distinguish if it is primary or central. This is achieved by measuring serum LH and FSH.5 All biotin supplements should be stopped at least 72 hours before measuring LH and FSH, as biotin can interfere with the assays, yielding false values.21

Secretion of FSH and LH from the anterior pituitary is under the influence of pulsatile release of GnRH from the hypothalamus. LH acts on Leydig cells in the testes to produce testosterone, whereas FSH acts on Sertoli cells, together with testosterone, to bring about spermatogenesis in the seminiferous tubules. Testosterone acts centrally as negative feedback to decrease the release of LH and FSH.

Primary hypogonadism occurs due to testicular failure, ie, the testes themselves fail to produce testosterone, leading to hypogonadism. The decrease in testosterone levels, together with inhibin B if Sertoli cells are damaged, lead to loss of negative feedback on the hypothalamus and pituitary, and therefore increased levels of LH and FSH. This is termed hypergonadotropic hypogonadism. Testicular failure may also result in impaired spermatogenesis and infertility due to destruction of testicular structures, in which case fertility cannot be restored.

Central hypogonadism occurs when the pituitary fails to produce LH and FSH (secondary hypogonadism) or when the hypothalamus fails to produce GnRH and subsequently the lack of secretion of LH and FSH from the pituitary (tertiary hypogonadism). The lack of LH will result in no stimulation of Leydig cells to produce testosterone, and therefore its deficiency. Serum hormone levels in central hypogonadism will reveal low testosterone, with either low or inappropriately normal gonadotropins (LH and FSH). This is termed hypogonadotropic hypogonadism. The lack of FSH, together with testosterone deficiency will also result in decreased spermatogenesis and therefore infertility. Testicular structures are preserved, however, and fertility can be restored with appropriate therapy, as discussed below.

Prolactin should be measured only if the patient has central hypogonadism. Its measurement is not warranted at this point in the patient’s workup. The implications of prolactin and its relationship to hypogonadism will be discussed later.

Although, this stepwise approach is not convenient for many patients, some physicians follow it because it is cost-effective, especially in those who are not insured. However, other physicians order FSH, LH, and sometimes prolactin with the confirmatory low testosterone measurement. Laboratories can also be instructed to wait to measure the pituitary hormones and to do so only if low testosterone is confirmed.

Varicocele, a possible cause of male infertility, can also impair Leydig cell function and cause low testosterone. In fact, surgical repair of varicocele has been demonstrated to increase serum testosterone.22 Scrotal ultrasonography is used to diagnose varicocele, but this also should be ordered at a later stage in the workup if primary hypogonadism is diagnosed.

The GnRH stimulation test is important for the diagnosis and evaluation of precocious or delayed puberty in children. In boys with delayed puberty, a poorer response to GnRH stimulation indicates central hypogonadism rather than constitutional delay.23 It has no role in the evaluation of postpubertal or adult-onset hypogonadism.

Semen analysis is important to evaluate fertility if the patient is interested in further procreation.5 Low testosterone levels may result in impaired spermatogenesis and therefore infertility. On the other hand, treatment with exogenous testosterone will also result in infertility, by feedback inhibition of LH and FSH and therefore inhibition of spermatogenesis. If the patient wishes to preserve fertility, treatment options other than testosterone should be considered; examples include clomiphene citrate, human menopausal gonadotropin, and human chorionic gonadotropin.23,24

Our patient has no desire to expand his family; therefore, a semen analysis and attempts to preserve spermatogenesis are not indicated.

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