Clinical Review

Genitourinary syndrome of menopause: Current and emerging therapies

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With more than 1 billion menopausal women likely to be affected by vulvovaginal atrophy worldwide by 2025, the need for effective remedies is acute. Here, 3 experts survey the options.

In this article

  • What can we offer our patients?
  • Fractional CO2 laser: a study in progress
  • Bottom line



Genitourinary syndrome of menopause (GSM) is the new terminology to describe symptoms occurring secondary to vulvovaginal atrophy.1 The recent change in terminology originated with a consensus panel comprising the board of directors of the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health (ISSWSH) and the board of trustees of the North American Menopause Society (NAMS). At a terminology consensus conference in May 2013, these groups determined that the term GSM is medically more accurate and all encompassing than vulvovaginal atrophy. It is also more publicly acceptable.

The symptoms of GSM derive from the hypoestrogenic state most commonly associated with menopause and its effects on the genitourinary tract.2 Vaginal symptoms associated with GSM include vaginal or vulvar dryness, discharge, itching, and dyspareunia.3 Histologically, a loss of superficial epithelial cells in the genitourinary tract leads to thinning of the tissue. There is then a loss of vaginal rugae and elasticity, leading to narrowing and shortening of the vagina.

In addition, the vaginal epithelium becomes much more fragile, which can lead to tears, bleeding, and fissures. There is also a loss of the subcutaneous fat of the labia majora, a change that can result in narrowing of the introitus, fusion of the labia majora, and shrinkage of the clitoral prepuce and urethra. The vaginal pH level becomes more alkaline, which may alter vaginal flora and increase the risk of urogenital infections—specifically, urinary tract infection (UTI). Vaginal secretions, largely transudate, from the vaginal vasculature also decrease over time. These changes lead to significant dyspareunia and impairment of sexual function.

In this article, we survey the therapies available for GSM, focusing first on proven treatments such as local estrogen administration and use of ospemifene (Osphena), and then describing an emerging treatment involving the use of fractional CO2 laser.

How prevalent is GSM?
Approximately half of all postmenopausal women in the United States report atrophy-related symptoms and a significant negative effect on quality of life.4–6 Few women with these symptoms seek medical attention.

The Vaginal Health: Insights, Views, and Attitudes (VIVA) survey found that 80% of women with genital atrophy considered its impact on their lives to be negative, 75% reported negative consequences in their sexual life, 68% reported that it made them feel less sexual, 33% reported negative effects on their marriage or relationship, and 26% reported a negative impact on their self-esteem.7

Another review of the impact of this condition by Nappi and Palacios estimated that, by the year 2025, there will be 1.1 billion women worldwide older than age 50 with specific needs related to GSM.8 Nappi and Palacios cite 4 recent surveys that suggest that health care providers need to be more proactive in helping patients disclose their symptoms. The same can be said of other symptoms of the urinary tract, such as urinary frequency, urgency, and incontinence, as well as pelvic floor relaxation.

A recently published international survey on vaginal atrophy not only depicts the extremely high prevalence of the condition but also describes fairly significant differences in attitudes toward symptoms between countries in Europe and North America.9 Overall, 77% of respondents, who included more than 4,000 menopausal women, believed that women were uncomfortable discussing symptoms of vaginal atrophy.9

Pastore and colleagues, using data from the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), found the most prevalent urogenital symptoms to be vaginal dryness (27%), vaginal irritation or itching (18.6%), vaginal discharge (11.1%), and dysuria (5.2%).4 Unlike vasomotor symptoms of menopause, which tend to decrease over time, GSM does not spontaneously remit and commonly recurs when hormone therapy—the dominant treatment—is withdrawn.

What can we offer our patients?
Vaginal estrogen

The most common therapy used to manage GSM is estrogen. Most recommendations state that if the primary menopausal symptoms are related to vaginal atrophy, then local estrogen administration should be the primary mode of therapy. The Society of Gynecologic Surgeons Systematic Review Group recently concluded that all commercially available vaginal estrogens effectively can relieve common vulvovaginal atrophy−related symptoms and have additional utility in women with urinary urgency, frequency, stress incontinence, urge incontinence, and recurrent UTIs.10 Although their meta-­analysis clearly demonstrated that estrogen therapy improves the symptoms of GSM, investigators acknowledged that a clearer understanding is needed of the exact risk to the endometrium with sustained use of vaginal estrogen, as well as a more precise assessment of changes in serum estradiol levels.10

A recent Cochrane review concluded that all forms of local estrogen appear to be equally effective for symptoms of vaginal atrophy.11 One trial cited in the review found significant adverse effects following administration of cream, compared with tablets, causing uterine bleeding, breast pain, and perineal pain.11


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