We’ve had multiple losses – what should we be asking about?

“We seem to have no trouble getting pregnant, but we’ve had several first trimester losses.” Or, “We put back good-looking embryos every time, but they just don’t stick.” If this sounds like you, here are a few ideas you might want to discuss with your doctor.

Miscarriages can be caused by any one or more of the following factors:

  • structural
  • hormonal
  • immunological/autoimmune
  • environmental
  • genetic

Let’s start (as the drs often do) with the fairly basic hormonal tests. One of the first that’s included in a fertility workup is testing progesterone in the luteal phase. Most drs order this for CD21 (Day 21 of your cycle), but actually you should really have it done at 7dpo (7 days past ovulation). Of course, 7dpo=CD21 if you ovulate on Day 14 of your cycle, but if you usually ovulate late or early, or if it’s unpredictable, you might want to track your ovulation using BBTs (basal body temperatures) and go at 7dpo. If your progesterone (P4) levels aren’t high enough, you may need progesterone supplements (like utrogestan pessaries) after ovulation (O). Some specialists believe this is a VERY common problem with older women and that if you’re over 40 and ttc naturally you should take P4 after O every cycle.

Another important one to test early, especially if you have any family history or tend to feel tired a lot, is thyroid conditions. Hypothyroid (underactive thyroid) does pop up reasonably often as a cause for conception and sometimes miscarriage problems and is easy to test for. You can ask your GP for this if you’re not seeing a specialist.

If you’re ttc naturally you should also check whether you have a luteal phase defect, i.e. once you ovulate it takes fewer than 12 days for AF (your period) to arrive. You can usually figure this out by charting your basal body temperatures (BBTs) – and a really good site for learning how is Fertility Friend. Again, if your LP is too short, this can be easily fixed with progesterone support after O.

There’s a panel of blood tests you can ask for that are used to diagnose some of the possible causes of “recurrent pregnancy loss” (RPL) or “recurrent implantation failure” (when those embies just don’t stick). Broadly speaking, they cover three categories of issues – autoimmune issues (your body may be rejecting embryos as foreign bodies), clotting issues (not sure the exact mechanism for this, but if your blood clots too much, this makes pregnancy loss more likely – some clotting issues are caused by autoimmune problems) and some genetic issues. Here’s the list that we were sent for, and I think it’s a pretty typical list for New Zealand (some countries like the States seem to test for half a dozen kitchen sinks, several of which aren’t available in NZ):

  • Coagulation screen
  • Thrombophilia screen
  • Autoantibody screen incl.
  • antithyroid antibodies,
  • anti-gliaden antibodies
  • Factor V Leiden
  • Karotype
  • MTHFR mutation
  • Anticardiolipin antibodies
  • Lupus anticoagulant
  • … and a karotype for DH (who gets off easy, as usual).

Probably the next logical step is to get either a saline sono (ultrasound during which they squirt saline solution into your uterus to help them see better) or an HSG (similar, but it’s an X-ray procedure where they shoot iodine dye into your uterus and can also check whether you have blocked tubes). Either of these should tell you whether you have any structural issues in the uterus that might be preventing you from achieving or holding onto a pregnancy. Examples include uterine polyps, fibroids, scar tissue, and an unusual shaped uterus. The most likely issues can often be treated with some fairly minor surgery.

The main environmental causes of miscarriages are not usually tested for, but things you should look around you to check your exposure. Some to keep an eye out for include lead, mercury, organic solvents and ionising radiation. Other more common culprits like cigarettes, alcohol, coffee and other drugs should be cut right out (or, down as much as possible) while ttc. Some naturopaths will do things like send a sample of your hair for analysis for heavy metals, which can highlight things you are exposing yourself to without knowing it. They also advise avoiding those forms of radiation and related exposure that we are not often aware of. These include long-haul flights (which expose the body to as much radiation as a full-body X-ray, or so they say) and keeping a cell phone in your pocket right next to your ovaries – think about it!! Well, who knows which of these various things are real causes, but if you want to make sure you try everything you can to prevent another loss, you’ll probably do what I did and take the ideas pretty seriously.

But what if my specialist won’t run all these tests?

This is quite a common comment from a lot of women/couples dealing with RPL (recurrent pregnancy loss). It may be frustrating, but there is another way to look at this. OK, you may not be able to test for the entire kitchen sink, but maybe you can ask your specialist to consider treating you as if you did have several of these issues going on but they just may well be undiagnosed. That may sound nuts, but there are actually quite a few low-tech options you can ask about that many doctors will agree fall into the “won’t hurt, might help” category. These include:

  • low-dose aspirin (usually 100mg/day) – addresses clotting issues
  • high-dose folic acid (4-5mg/day) – helps prevent neural tube defects
  • progesterone support (usually Utrogestan pessaries) after O on every cycle you are ttc
  • low-dose estrogen support after O too (2mg estradiol valerate, for example)

If you’re doing IVF, each cycle is a bit more high stakes, so you may be able to push for a bit more of a kitchen sink approach. Some other things that people are often allowed to try even if there hasn’t been a definitive diagnosis of a particular cause for repeated losses/failures include:

  • progesterone shots instead of (or as well as) the pessaries – for after egg collection
  • a low-dose steroid such as Dexamethasone – to address any undiagnosed immune issues
  • Heparin shots – Heparin is a blood thinner, so this also addresses clotting factors

Finally, don’t forget that there’s good evidence that acupuncture improves pregnancy and live birth rates for patients undergoing IVF – and good reason to believe this is also true for couples trying to conceive naturally or with IUI. Click on the category Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine in the left-hand column to see more posts on this topic.

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