Clinical Review

Adenomyosis: Why we need to reassess our understanding of this condition

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Could more instances of pregnancy loss and infertility be due to adenomyosis? The authors examine this condition, offering current prevalence estimates, pathology, and diagnosis.




CASE Painful, heavy menstruation and recurrent pregnancy loss

A 37-year-old woman (G3P0030) with a history of recurrent pregnancy loss presents for evaluation. She had 3 losses—most recently a miscarriage at 22 weeks with a cerclage in place. She did not undergo any surgical procedures for these losses. Hormonal and thrombophilia workup is negative and semen analysis is normal. She reports a history of painful, heavy periods for many years, as well as dyspareunia and occasional post-coital bleeding. Past medical history was otherwise unremarkable. Pelvic magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) revealed focal thickening of the junctional zone up to 15 mm with 2 foci of T2 hyperintensities suggesting adenomyosis (FIGURE 1).

How do you counsel this patient regarding the MRI findings and their impact on her fertility?

Adenomyosis is a condition in which endometrial glands and stroma are abnormally present in the uterine myometrium, resulting in smooth muscle hypertrophy and abnormal uterine contractility. Traditional teaching describes a woman in her 40s with heavy and painful menses, a “boggy uterus” on examination, who has completed childbearing and desires definitive treatment. Histologic diagnosis of adenomyosis is made from the uterine specimen at the time of hysterectomy, invariably confounding our understanding of the epidemiology of adenomyosis.

More recently, however, we are beginning to learn that this narrative is misguided. Imaging changes of adenomyosis can be seen in women who desire future fertility and in adolescents with severe dysmenorrhea, suggesting an earlier age of incidence.1 In a recent systematic review, prevalence estimates ranged from 15% to 67%, owing to varying diagnostic methods and patient inclusion criteria.2 It is increasingly being recognized as a primary contributor to infertility, with one study estimating a 30% prevalence of infertility in women with adenomyosis.3 Moreover, treatment with gonadotropin-releasing hormone agonists and/or surgical excision may improve fertility outcomes.4

As we learn more about this prevalent and life-altering condition, we owe it to our patients to consider this diagnosis when counseling on dysmenorrhea, heavy menstrual bleeding, or infertility.

Anatomy of the myometrium

The myometrium is composed of the inner and outer myometrium: the inner myometrium (IM) and endometrium are of Müllerian origin, and the outer myometrium (OM) is of mesenchymal origin. The IM thickens in response to steroid hormones during the menstrual cycle with metaplasia of endometrial stromal cells into myocytes and back again, whereas the OM is not responsive to hormones.5 Emerging literature suggests the OM is further divided into a middle and outer section based on different histologic morphologies, though the clinical implications of this are not understood.6 The term “junctional zone” (JZ) refers to the imaging appearance of what is thought to be the IM. Interestingly it cannot be identified on traditional hematoxylin and eosin staining. When the JZ is thickened or demonstrates irregular borders, it is used as a diagnostic marker for adenomyosis and is postulated to play an important role in adenomyosis pathophysiology, particularly heavy menstrual bleeding and infertility.7

Continue to: Subtypes of adenomyosis...


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