Among women of childbearing age, there is an expected pattern of the
menstrual cycle. The interplay of hormones, receptor sites, growth factors,
inhibin, and activin with the granulosa and thecal cells in the ovary is
complex. An over-simplified version is:
Excluding pregnancy, there are really only three reasons for abnormal uterine bleeding:
The limited number of possibilities makes your caring for these patients very simple.
If the bleeding is heavy, obtain a blood count and assess the rate of blood loss to determine how much
margin of safety you have. Someone with a good blood count (hematocrit) and minimal rate
of blood loss (less than a heavy period), can tolerate this rate of loss for many days to
weeks before the bleeding itself becomes a threat. Determine whether the
bleeding is significant enough to begin iron replacement therapy.
A variety of pregnancy problems can cause vaginal bleeding. These include:
If the bleeding patient has a positive pregnancy test, a careful search should be made
for each of these problems. However, if the pregnancy test is negative, pregnancy-related
bleeding problems are effectively ruled out.
Such problems as uterine fibroids or polyps are examples of mechanical problems inside
Since mechanical problems have mechanical solutions, these patients will need surgery
of some sort (Polypectomy, D&C, Hysteroscopy, Hysterectomy, Myomectomy, etc.) to
resolve their problem.
Polyps visible protruding from the cervix are usually coming from the cervix and can be
easily twisted off.
A simple ultrasound scan can reveal the presence of fibroids and their
location. Those fibroids that are impinging on the endometrial cavity are
the most likely to be responsible for abnormal bleeding.
Endometrial polyps can be identified with a fluid-enhanced ultrasound (sonohysterography),
a simple office procedure. They can also be identified during hysteroscopy.
An endometrial biopsy can be useful in ruling out malignancy or
premalignant changes among women over age 40. It can also be useful in
younger women in identifying the hormonally confused endometrium of
anovulatory bleeding, and will sometimes pick up a small piece of
Another form of mechanical problem is an IUD causing abnormal bleeding. These should
always be removed.
Hormonal causes for abnormal bleeding include anovulation leading to an unstable
uterine lining, breakthrough bleeding associated with birth control pills, and spotting at
midcycle associated with ovulation. Some of these cases will be related
to an underlying medical abnormality, such as polycystic ovary syndrome, hyper
or hypothyroidism, adrenal hyperplasia, and pituitary adenoma. Rarely, this may
be due to a hormone secreting neoplasm of the ovary.
The solution to all of these problems is to find and treat those underlying
medical abnormalities that exist, and/or take
control of the patient hormonally and insist (through the use of BCPs) that she have
normal, regular periods.
Thyroid disease can be ruled out clinically or through laboratory testing
Adrenal hyperplasia can be ruled out clinically or through laboratory
testing (DHEAS, 17 hydroxyprogesterone, ACTH stimulation test)
Prolactin-secreting pituitary adenoma can be ruled out clinically or
through laboratory testing (serum prolactin)
Hormone-secreting ovarian neoplasms can be ruled out clinically or through
laboratory testing (ultrasound, estradiol, testosterone)
Anovulation can be confirmed through the use of endometrial biopsy,
although for women under age 40, biopsy is only infrequently utilized.
If the abnormal bleeding is light and the patient's blood count good,
starting low-dose BCPs at the next convenient time will usually result
in effective control within a month or two.
If the bleeding is quite heavy or her blood low, then it is best to have
the patient lie still while you treat her with birth control pills. Some gynecologists have used 4
BCPs per day initially to stop the bleeding, and then taper down after several days to
three a day, then two a day and then one a day. If you abruptly drop the dosage, you may
provoke a menstrual flow, the very thing you didn't want.
Alternatively, particularly for those with intractable anovulatory
bleeding, plain estrogen in doses of 2.5 up to 25 mg a day can be
effective in promoting endometrial proliferation, stopping the bleeding.
After the bleeding is initially controlled with estrogen, progesterone
is added to stabilize the endometrium, leading up to a hormonal
withdrawal flow a week or two later. Two drawbacks to this approach are
the nausea that frequently accompanies such large doses of estrogen, and
the theoretical risk of thromboembolism among women exposed to large
amounts of estrogen while on bed rest.
Giving iron supplements is a
good idea (FeSO4 325 mg TID PO or its' equivalent) for anyone who is bleeding heavily.
Abnormal bleeding can also be a symptom of malignancy, from the vagina, cervix or
Cancer of the vagina is extraordinarily rare and will present with a palpable, visible,
bleeding lesion on the vaginal wall. Cancer of the cervix is more common but a normal Pap
smear and normal exam will effectively rule that out. Should you find a bleeding lesion in
either the vagina or on the cervix, these should be biopsied.
Factors that increase the risk for endometrial carcinoma include:
Increased estrogen exposure (exogenous or endogenous)
Overweight (through increased conversion of androstenedione to estrone by body fat
Chronic, untreated anovulation (many years)
Cancer of the uterus (endometrial carcinoma) occurs most often in the older population
(post-menopausal) and is virtually unknown in patients under age 35. For those women with
abnormal bleeding over age 40, an endometrial biopsy is a wise precaution during the
evaluation and treatment of abnormal bleeding.
Read more about
Cancer of the Uterus
Diagnostic and Therapeutic Options
Examine the patient
Biopsy any visible lesions of the cervix or vagina
Endometrial biopsy for women over age 40
Pelvic ultrasound scan to look for submucous fibroids
Sonohysterography if D&C is not planned and abnormal bleeding
Blood count (if bleeding has been heavy and prolonged)
Correct any underlying medical problems
Begin OCPs to control abnormal bleeding due to hormonal causes
Continuous OCPs to suppress menstruation completely
Depo Provera to suppress ovulation and menstruation
D&C (with or without hysteroscopy) to remove endometrial polyps
If bleeding is intractable and the patient desires to preserve
childbearing, consider myomectomy if submucous fibroids are contributing
to the bleeding.
If bleeding is intractable and the patient has completed childbearing,
consider balloon or roller-ball ablation of the endometrium, or
Heavy periods ("menorrhagia," "hypermenorrhea") and lengthy
periods may reflect an underlying mechanical abnormality inside the uterus
(fibroids, polyps), may be a cause of iron-deficiency anemia, may contribute to
uncomfortable menstrual cramps. If the examination, Pap
smear, and pregnancy test are normal, then the chance of malignancy is very low and need
not be further considered in those under age 40 unless symptoms persist.
Those over 40 should have an endometrial biopsy.
One good approach is to give birth control pills to women with these heavy periods. The
effect of the BCPs is to reduce the heaviness and duration of flow. If they are anemic,
oral iron preparations will usually return their iron stores to normal. If the BCPs
(standard, low dose, monophasic pill such as Ortho Novum 1+35, LoOvral or LoEstrin
1.5/30) fail to reduce the flow appreciably, they can be taken
continuously, without the usual "week off." This will postpone their
menstrual period for as long as several months. Even though their period
may still be heavy or lengthy, the fact that they only have it every few
months rather than every 4 weeks will have a major impact on their
quality of life and anemia, if present.
Alternatively, you could start the patient on DMPA (depot medroxyprogesterone acetate)
150 mg IM Q 3 months. This will usually disrupt the normal period and she probably won't
continue to have heavy periods. There are some significant drawbacks to this approach,
however. Light spotting or bleeding are common among women taking DMPA, so you will be
substituting one nuisance for another nuisance.
If sonohysterography demonstrates an endometrial polyp, removal of
the polyp will often restore a normal menstrual flow. OCPs will
sometimes reduce the flow due to fibroids enough to allow the patient to
tolerate these flows for extended lengths of time.
Extremely light periods, so long as they occur at the right time, are not dangerous and
really are not a medical problem.
This condition is most often seen among women taking low dose birth control pills. The
birth control pills usually act by blocking the normal ovarian function (production of
various hormones and ovulation), and then substituting the hormones (estrogen and
progestin) found in the BCPs. Usually, the result of this exchange is that the circulating
estrogen levels are about the same as if the woman were not taking BCPs. In some women,
however, the estrogen levels are significantly lower than before they started taking the
BCPs. In this case, they will notice their menstrual periods getting lighter and lighter
(over 3 to 6 months), and possibly even disappearing altogether.
This is not dangerous, has no impact on future fertility, and will resolve
spontaneously if the BCPs are stopped. Stopping the BCPs is not necessary, however,
because there are other safe alternatives. If the periods are simply very light (1-2
days), you can ignore the problem because this situation poses no threat to the patient.
If periods have totally stopped:
Rule out pregnancy.
You may change to a different BCP with different hormone in it. This will often lead to
recognizable periods because the different hormone is metabolized differently.
You may add estrogen (Premarin .625 mg or Estrace 1 mg) to each BCP to increase the
estrogen stimulation of the uterine lining, increasing its' thickness and leading to
heavier periods. After the desired effect has been achieved (recognizable periods), the
extra estrogen can be stopped.
You may safely reassure the patient and allow her to not have periods while taking the
BCPs. As long as she otherwise feels well, the absence of periods while taking BCPs is not
known to have any adverse effects and some women prefer to avoid monthly flows.
Late for a Period
Pregnancy should be ruled out with a pregnancy test.
If the pregnancy test is negative and the patient is not taking hormonal contraception,
then simple observation for a single missed period is the usually the wisest course. Delay
of periods in operational settings is common. In Boot Camp, among women not on BCPs, about
1/3 of women will skip periods for up to three months. The same observation is found among
college freshman women. Presumably, this is a stress response.
If the patient remains without a period for an extended length of time (3 months or
more), then the following are often done:
Normal menstrual flows are re-established with either BCPs, or Provera (10 mg a day x 5
days, followed 3 days later by a period). Provera works well if ovarian function is not
deeply depressed, but will not work for some women. BCPs will usually work regardless of
the degree of ovarian suppression.
The patient is tested for thyroid malfunction. (TSH or Thyroid Stimulating Hormone
The patient is tested for prolactin disorders. (prolactinoma, often associated with
inappropriate milk secretion from the nipples)
The patient is tested for premature ovarian failure. (FSH/follicle stimulating hormone and LH/luteinizing hormone)
If any of these tests are abnormal or neither Provera nor BCPs are effective in
restarting normal periods, gynecologic consultation upon return to garrison is indicated.
This means menstrual periods coming at unpredictable intervals, rather than the normal
If the flows, whenever they come, are normal in character and length, this is not a
dangerous condition and no treatment or evaluation is required. If the patient finds the
irregular character of her periods to be troublesome, then starting low dose BCPs will be
very effective in giving her quite normal, once-a-month menstrual flows.
If the flows, whenever they come, are not consistent; are sometimes heavy, are
sometimes light, are sometimes only spotting, then they are likely not true menstrual
cycles, but are anovulatory bleeding (uterine bleeding occurring in the absence of
ovulation). This condition should be treated with re-establishment of normal, regular
periods, usually with BCPs. Unresolved anovulatory bleeding may, over many months to
years, lead to cosmetic problems (unwanted hair growth due to relative excess of male
hormones) and uterine lining problems (endometrial hyperplasia due to a lack of the
protective hormone progesterone).
Patients with infrequent periods, particularly if associated with
overweight status, acne, and multiple follicles on the ovary when visualized
with ultrasound, usually have "polycystic ovary syndrome." This condition may
be effectively treated with OCPs, but also responds well to the use of
Patients with hypothyroidism may also have this type of menstrual cycle,
and screening for thyroid disease with a TSH is helpful.
Too Frequent Periods
Periods that are too frequent (more often than every 26 days, "metrorrhagia")
can be related to several predisposing factors:
If the periods are otherwise normal, then a short "luteal phase" or
insufficient ovarian production of progesterone may be responsible.
If the periods are inconsistent, then failure to ovulate and the resulting anovulatory
bleeding may be responsible.
If the periods are actually normal and once a month, but there are episodes of bleeding
in between the periods, then mechanical factors such as fibroids or polyps may be
Women with hyperthyroidism are classically described as experiencing
frequent, heavy periods. They, in reality, rarely show that pattern, but
we usually screen
these patients for thyroid disease anyway.
Women who experience significant daily bleeding for a very long time (weeks) sometimes
develop another kind of problem unique to this circumstance, denuding of the uterine
Normally, small breaks or tears in the uterine lining are promptly repaired. For women
who have been bleeding for weeks, with the accompanying uterine cramping, the uterine
lining becomes very nearly completely lost. There is so little endometrium left that the
woman will have difficulty achieving repair and restoration of the normal lining without
external assistance. A common example of this situation would be a teenager who has been
bleeding for many weeks but who, through embarrassment, has not sought medical attention.
On arrival, she continues to bleed small amounts of bright red blood. She is profoundly
anemic, with a hemoglobin of 7.0.
These patients do not respond to simple BCP treatment because the BCPs are so weak in
estrogen and so strong in progestin that the uterine lining barely has a chance to grow
and cover up the denuded, bleeding areas inside the uterus.
These patients need strong doses of plain estrogen, to effectively stimulate the
remaining uterine lining (causing it to proliferate). Premarin, 2.5 to 5 mg PO per day, or
IV (25 mg slowly over a few hours) will provide this strong stimulus to the uterine lining
and if combined with bedrest, will usually slow or stop the bleeding significantly within
24 hours. The estrogen is stimulating the uterine lining to grow lush and thick. The
estrogen is continued for several days, but at lower dosages (1.25 to 2.5 mg per day)
until the bleeding completely stops. Then, progesterone is added (Provera 5-10 mg PO per
day) for 5-10 days. Progesterone is necessary at this point because the lush, thick
uterine lining is also very fragile and easily broken. Progesterone provides a structural
strength to the uterine lining, making it less likely to tear or break.
Once a normal, thick, well-supported lining has been re-established, first with
estrogen, then with the addition of progesterone, it will need to be shed, just like a
normal lining is shed once a month. Stopping all medication will trigger a normal
menstrual flow about 3 days later. The lining will have been restored and the vicious
cycle of bleeding leading to more endometrial loss leading to more bleeding will be
broken. Future periods may then be normal, although many physicians will start BCPs at
that point to prevent recurrence of the constant bleeding episode.
Hemorrhage is defined differently by different texts, but three good general guidelines
If the bleeding is heavier than the heaviest menstrual period the patient has ever
experienced...that is hemorrhage.
If, when standing, blood is running down her leg and dripping into her shoes...that is
If, because of heavy vaginal bleeding, the patient cannot stand upright without feeling
light-headed or dizzy...that is hemorrhage.
Vaginal hemorrhage is more often associated with pregnancy complications such as
miscarriage or placental abruption, but certainly can occur in the absence of pregnancy.
This is a true medical emergency and a number of precautionary steps should be taken:
IV access should be established to facilitate fluid resuscitation
Blood transfusion should be made readily available, if it proves necessary.
Pregnancy must be excluded as it's presence may profoundly effect the treatment.
Bedrest will lead most cases of hemorrhage to slow, regardless of the cause.
Medical evacuation should be planned as the definitive treatment of uterine hemorrhage
not responsive to conservative measures is surgical.
Blood counts (hgb or hct) performed during an acute hemorrhage may be falsely reassuring
as the hemoconcentration accompanying hemorrhage may take several hours to re-equilibrate
in response to your IV fluids.
Elevation of the legs to about 45 degrees will add as much as one unit of fresh, whole
blood to the patient's circulation by eliminating pooling in the lower extremities.
In severe cases of hemorrhage when surgical intervention is not immediately available,
vaginal packing can slow and sometimes stop bleeding due to vaginal lacerations or uterine
bleeding from many causes. After a Foley catheter is inserted in the bladder, a vaginal
speculum holds the vaginal walls apart. Tail sponges, long rolls of gauze, 4 X 4's or any
other sterile, gauzelike substance can be packed into the vagina. The upper vagina is
packed first, with moderate pressure being exerted to insure a tight fit. Then,
progressively more packing material is stuffed into the lower vagina, distending the
walls. Ultimately, the equivalent of a 12-inch or 16-inch softball sized mass of gauze
will be packed into the vagina. This has several effects: 1) any bleeding from the cervix
or vagina will have direct compression applied, slowing or stopping the bleeding. 2) The
uterus is elevated out of the pelvis by the presence of the vaginal pack, placing the
uterine vessels on stretch, slowing blood flow to the uterus and thus slowing or stopping
any intrauterine bleeding. 3) By disallowing the egress of blood from the uterus,
intrauterine pressure rises to some extent, exerting a tamponade effect on any continuing
bleeding within the uterus. Vaginal packing can be left for 1-3 days, and then carefully
removed after the bleeding has stopped or stabilized. Sometimes, only half the packing is
removed, followed by the other half the following day. The Foley catheter is very
important, both to monitor kidney function and to allow the patient to urinate (usually
impossible without a Foley with the vaginal packing in place).