Ovarian Cysts and IVF

29 Sep
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“Functional ovarian cysts” are literally nothing more than ovarian follicles that become enlarged, dilated and distended with fluid. They acquire special relevance when detected in women about to undergo controlled ovarian hyperstimulation(COH) with gonadotropins where they can literally, “throw a wrench in the works,” causing a slight delay, postponement or even a cancellation of the cycle of treatment.

Ovarian cysts may be either “functional cysts” or “cystic tumors”. Functional cysts grow in response to a sustained elevation in blood levels of luteinizing hormone (LH) and/or follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), whether produced by their own pituitary glands or administered to them. By definition, tumors (in contrast with “functional” ovarian cysts) are capable of independent growth, thus cystic ovarian tumors do not respond to gonadotropin stimulation. It is this that distinguishes them from “functional” ovarian cysts. It follows that “functional” ovarian cysts may develop as a result of non-physiological, sustained pituitary gonadotropin stimulation or as a result of prolonged administration of gonadotropins (e.g. Folistim, Gonal F, Puregon, Bravelle, Menopur or Repronex).

Aside from causing menstrual dysfunction such as a delay in the onset of bleeding, irregular cycles, and mild lower abdominal discomfort, unruptured “functional” cysts are usually relatively non-problematic. In some cases, such functional cysts undergo rapid distention (often as a result of a minor degree of bleeding inside the cyst itself) and the woman will experience a sharp or aching pain on one side of her lower abdomen and/or deep seated pain during intercourse. They may even rupture, causing the sudden onset of severe lower abdominal pain, which may simulate an attack of acute appendicitis or even a ruptured ectopic (tubal) pregnancy. While very unpleasant, a ruptured “functional” cyst hardly ever produces a degree of internal bleeding that warrants surgical intervention. The pain, which is made worse on movement, almost always subsides progressively over a period of four to five days.

Whenever an ovarian cyst is detected (usually by ultrasound examination), the first consideration should be to determine whether it is a “functional” cyst or a cystic ovarian tumor. The reason is that tumors are subject to a variety of complications such as twisting (torsion), hemorrhage, infection and even malignant change, all of which will require surgical intervention.

Gonadotropin releasing hormone agonists (GnRHa) such as Lupron, Buserelin, Nafarelin and Synarel, administered daily, starting a few days prior to menstruation, all elicit an initial and rapid, out-pouring (“surge”) of pituitary LH and FSH release. This “surge” lasts for a day or two. Then, as the pituitary reservoir of FSH and LH becomes depleted, the blood FSH and LH levels fall rapidly, reaching near undetectable concentrations within a day or two. At the same time, the declining FSH results in a drop in blood estradiol (E2) concentration, leading to a withdrawal bleed (menstruation).

The progressive exhaustion of pituitary FSH/LH along with the decline in blood E2 is referred to as “down-regulation.” The continued daily administration of GnRHa or its replacement with a GnRH antagonist (e.g. Ganirelix, Cetrotide or Orgalutron) results in blood LH concentrations being sustained at a very low level throughout the ensuing cycle of controlled ovarian hyperstimulation (COH) with gonadotropins, thereby optimizing follicular maturation and promoting E2 induced endometrial proliferation.

Regardless of whether down-regulation with GnRHa is initiated while the woman is taking birth control pills (BCPs) or by starting treatment on day 20-23 (the mid luteal phase) of a natural cycle, the initial FSH/LH “surge” sometimes so accelerates follicular growth that it leads to the development of one or more “functional” ovarian cysts. These cysts release E2 and cause the blood E2 often to remain elevated (>70pg/ml). Depending on the extent of this effect, it sometimes leads to a delay in the onset of menstruation and thus also in the initiation of ovarian stimulation with gonadotropins. While in most cases, further continuation of GnRHa therapy (with sustained suppression of FSH/LH) would ultimately (within a week or two) lead to absorption and disappearance of functional cysts followed by menstruation, delaying COH can have drawbacks. This is because prolonged uninterrupted GnRHa therapy can blunt subsequent ovarian follicular response to gonadotropins. Thus, it is not good policy to continue GnRHa administration for much longer than 14 days prior to initiating COH.

Failure of menstruation to commence within 4-7 days of initiating treatment with GnRHa suggests a potential underlying “functional”ovarian cyst and calls for an ultrasound examination to make the diagnosis. Once diagnosed, there are two therapeutic options, depending upon the number and size of cysts detected.: 1) wait to see whether the cyst will absorb spontaneously within a few days or, 2) immediately resort to needle aspiration of the cyst(s) under local anesthesia. My preference is to perform needle aspiration, sooner rather than later in such cases. Menstruation will usually follow a successful aspiration within 2-4 days. Upon menstruation, a blood E2 level is measured. Provided it is less than 70pg/ml, COH can be initiated.

“Functional” ovarian cysts do not present a serious health hazard. Almost without exception, they will spontaneously resolve within 4 to 6 weeks, while “cystic tumors” will not. Accordingly, the persistence of any ovarian cyst for longer than 6 weeks should raise suspicion that you are dealing with a tumor rather than with a “functional” cyst. Since ovarian tumors can be malignant (or might later undergo malignant change), all ovarian cysts that persist for longer than 6 weeks (whether in non-pregnant or pregnant women), should be treated by surgical removal, followed by pathological analysis.


  • Victoria King says:


    I am from the UK and undergoing ivf. I had buserelin and then merional and produced 29 eggs that were removed. As you might expect I suffered a bit from ohss and felt bloated. Therefore my embryos were frozen until my body went back to normal. However I didn’t naturally ovulate for a frozen embryo transfer so I was put on buserelin again to downregulate me for frozen embryo transfer. However I developed swelling of the abdomen that persisted for approximately 8 weeks before doctors decided the drain what they thought was ascites. 1.5L came off at that tap. Over the next 2-4 weeks my swelling came back and I had surgery. It was discovered that I had a 26x20x15cm cyst on my ovary that was attached by a ‘stalk’. I was cut open as the idea was to remove the cyst whole. However it burst during the operation. Nevertheless the whole thing was removed, including the stalk, retaining all of my reproductive system. I waited 4 weeks after surgery to be told it was a ‘benign result’ but I am left wondering what might have caused it and whether, if it was caused by the buserelin, my body’s response might be detrimental to me having a frozen embryo transfer with my frozen embryos that are still waiting for me! What are your thoughts on this matter and have you had any experience with anything I have been through?

    • Geoffrey Sher says:

      There was almost certainly no relationship between the Buserelin and the ascites. I would go ahead with the FET pending medical clearance.

      Good luck!

      Geoff Sher

  • Deb says:

    Hi Dr Sher, I am 38 and doing IVF in australia and was just reading your post. The last cycle I did here I was on the pill for about 40 days before starting synarel. I was then on Synarel 2 sprays morning and night for 15 days before starting Puregon. I had a BT after being on the Synarel for 9 days and my E2 level was 37 but I had to continue on the Synarel for another 6 days before the FSH injections. The reason for this is that I am in a regional town so they only do Egg collections every 2 months and I had to wait to start the FSH injections so I could fit into their Egg collection week. I started on 250iu Puregon and after 5 days had a BT but my E2 level was still really low so I went up to 350iu Puregon. I ended up with 8 eggs, 5 mature, but they had dark cytoplasm and were grainy, and once they were fertilised with HA-ICSI none made it past Day 1.
    I have done a lot of stim cycles but this was the first in this regional town the others were in a city where I didn’t have to stay on the Synarel longer than necessary. The cycle before this one I conceived my son, I was 35 when doing that cycle. I have only every used up to 225iu Puregon, and usually have 15-18 eggs collected and have never been told that I have had poor egg quality. Do you think staying on the synarel longer and the higher FSH dose contributed to this result? I was told that it was my age but I don’t believe that completely, I feel like something else went wrong.
    Thanks. Deb.

    • Geoffrey Sher says:

      It could have to do with the prolonged use of the agonist and/or the protocol used for ovarian stimulation.

      Please go to the home page of this blog, http://www.IVFauthority.com . When you get there look for a “search bar” in the upper right hand column. Then type in the following subjects into the bar, click and this will take you to all the relevant articles I posted there.
      1. “An Individualized Approach to Ovarian stimulation” (posted on November 22nd, 2010)

      2. Ovarian Stimulation for IVF: The most important determinant of IVF Outcome” (Nov. 2103)

      3. “Agonist/Antagonist Conversion Protocol”

      4. “Embryo Implantation………” (Part-1 and Part- 2—-Posted August 2012)

      5. “Traveling for IVF from Out of State/Country– The Process at SIRM-Las Vegas” (posted on March, 21st 2012)

      6.“A personalized, stepwise approach to IVF at SIRM”; Parts 1 & 2 (posted March, 2012)

      7. “IVF success: Factors that influence outcome”

      8 “Use of the Birth Control Pill in IVF”

      Consider calling 702-699-7437 to arrange a Skype with me so we can discuss your case in detail.

      Finally, perhaps you would be interested in accessing my new book (recently released). It is the 4th edition (and a re-write) of “In Vitro Fertilization: The ART of Making Babies”. The book is available through “Amazon.com” as a down-load or in book form. It can also be obtained from most bookstores.

      Geoff Sher

      P.S: Please go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vp3GYuqn2eM&feature=youtu.be
      To view a video-tutorial by Linda Vignapiano RN, Clinical Manager at SIRM-Las Vegas.

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