Insulin-sensitising drugs (metformin, rosiglitazone, pioglitazone, D-chiro-inositol) for women with polycystic ovary syndrome, oligo amenorrhoea and subfertility

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017 Nov 29;11(11):CD003053. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003053.pub6.


Background: Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is characterised by infrequent or absent ovulation, and high levels of androgens and insulin (hyperinsulinaemia). Hyperinsulinaemia occurs secondary to insulin resistance and is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes mellitus. Insulin-sensitising agents such as metformin may be effective in treating PCOS-related anovulation.

Objectives: To evaluate the effectiveness and safety of insulin-sensitising drugs in improving reproductive and metabolic outcomes for women with PCOS undergoing ovulation induction.

Search methods: We searched the following databases from inception to January 2017: Cochrane Gynaecology and Fertility Group Specialised Register, CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase, PsycINFO and CINAHL. We searched registers of ongoing trials and reference lists from relevant studies.

Selection criteria: We included randomised controlled trials of insulin-sensitising drugs compared with placebo, no treatment, or an ovulation-induction agent for women with oligo and anovulatory PCOS.

Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently assessed studies for eligibility and bias. Primary outcomes were live birth rate and gastrointestinal adverse effects. Secondary outcomes included other pregnancy outcomes, menstrual frequency and metabolic effects. We combined data to calculate pooled odds ratios (ORs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs). We assessed statistical heterogeneity using the I2 statistic and reported quality of the evidence for primary outcomes using GRADE methodology.

Main results: We assessed the interventions metformin, clomiphene citrate, metformin plus clomiphene citrate, D-chiro-inositol, rosiglitazone and pioglitazone. We compared these with each other, placebo or no treatment. We included 48 studies (4451 women), 42 of which investigated metformin (4024 women). Evidence quality ranged from very low to moderate. Limitations were risk of bias (poor reporting of methodology and incomplete outcome data), imprecision and inconsistency. Metformin versus placebo or no treatmentThe evidence suggests that metformin may improve live birth rates compared with placebo (OR 1.59, 95% CI 1.00 to 2.51, 4 studies, 435 women, I2 = 0%, low-quality evidence). The metformin group experienced more gastrointestinal side effects (OR 4.76, 95% CI 3.06 to 7.41, 7 studies, 670 women, I2 = 61%, moderate-quality evidence) but had higher rates of clinical pregnancy (OR 1.93, 95% CI 1.42 to 2.64, 9 studies, 1027 women, I2 = 43%, moderate-quality evidence), ovulation (OR 2.55, 95% CI 1.81 to 3.59, 14 studies, 701 women, I2 = 58%, moderate-quality evidence) and menstrual frequency (OR 1.72, 95% CI 1.14 to 2.61, 7 studies, 427 women, I2 = 54%, low-quality evidence). There was no clear evidence of a difference in miscarriage rates (OR 1.08, 95% CI 0.50 to 2.35, 4 studies, 748 women, I2 = 0%, low-quality evidence). Metformin plus clomiphene citrate versus clomiphene citrate alone There was no conclusive evidence of a difference between the groups in live birth rates (OR 1.21, 95% CI 0.92 to 1.59, 9 studies, 1079 women, I2 = 20%, low-quality evidence), but gastrointestinal side effects were more common with combined therapy (OR 3.97, 95% CI 2.59 to 6.08, 3 studies, 591 women, I2 = 47%, moderate-quality evidence). However, the combined therapy group had higher rates of clinical pregnancy (OR 1.59, 95% CI 1.27 to 1.99, 16 studies, 1529 women, I2 = 33%, moderate-quality evidence) and ovulation (OR 1.57, 95% CI 1.28 to 1.92, 21 studies, 1624 women, I2 = 64%, moderate-quality evidence). There was a statistically significant difference in miscarriage rate per woman, with higher rates in the combined therapy group (OR 1.59, 95% CI 1.03 to 2.46, 9 studies, 1096 women, I2 = 0%, low-quality evidence) but this is of uncertain clinical significance due to low-quality evidence, and no clear difference between groups when we analysed miscarriage per pregnancy (OR 1.30, 95% CI 0.80 to 2.12, 8 studies; 400 pregnancies, I2 = 0%, low-quality evidence). Metformin versus clomiphene citrateWhen all studies were combined, findings for live birth were inconclusive and inconsistent (OR 0.71, 95% CI 0.49 to 1.01, 5 studies, 741 women, I2 = 86%, very low-quality evidence). In subgroup analysis by obesity status, obese women had a lower birth rate in the metformin group (OR 0.30, 95% CI 0.17 to 0.52, 2 studies, 500 women, I2 = 0%, very low-quality evidence), while data from the non-obese group showed a possible benefit from metformin, with high heterogeneity (OR 1.71, 95% CI 1.00 to 2.94, 3 studies, 241 women, I2 = 78%, very low-quality evidence). Similarly, among obese women taking metformin there were lower rates of clinical pregnancy (OR 0.34, 95% CI 0.21 to 0.55, 2 studies, 500 women, I2 = 0%, very low-quality evidence) and ovulation (OR 0.29, 95% CI 0.20 to 0.43 2 studies, 500 women, I2 = 0%, low-quality evidence) while among non-obese women, the metformin group had more pregnancies (OR 1.56, 95% CI 1.05 to 2.33, 5 studies, 490 women, I2 = 41%, very low-quality evidence) and no clear difference in ovulation rates (OR 0.81, 95% CI 0.51 to 1.28, 4 studies, 312 women, low-quality evidence, I2=0%). There was no clear evidence of a difference in miscarriage rates (overall: OR 0.92, 95% CI 0.50 to 1.67, 5 studies, 741 women, I2 = 52%, very low-quality evidence). D-chiro-inositol (2 studies), rosiglitazone (1 study) or pioglitazone (1 study) versus placebo or no treatmentWe were unable to draw conclusions regarding other insulin-sensitising drugs as no studies reported primary outcomes.

Authors' conclusions: Our updated review suggests that metformin alone may be beneficial over placebo for live birth, although the evidence quality was low. When metformin was compared with clomiphene citrate, data for live birth were inconclusive, and our findings were limited by lack of evidence. Results differed by body mass index (BMI), emphasising the importance of stratifying results by BMI. An improvement in clinical pregnancy and ovulation suggests that clomiphene citrate remains preferable to metformin for ovulation induction in obese women with PCOS.An improved clinical pregnancy and ovulation rate with metformin and clomiphene citrate versus clomiphene citrate alone suggests that combined therapy may be useful although we do not know whether this translates into increased live births. Women taking metformin alone or with combined therapy should be advised that there is no evidence of increased miscarriages, but gastrointestinal side effects are more likely.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Abortion, Spontaneous / epidemiology
  • Anovulation / drug therapy*
  • Clomiphene / therapeutic use
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hypoglycemic Agents / adverse effects
  • Hypoglycemic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Infertility, Female / drug therapy*
  • Inositol / therapeutic use
  • Insulin Resistance*
  • Live Birth*
  • Metformin / adverse effects
  • Metformin / therapeutic use
  • Ovulation Induction / statistics & numerical data
  • Pioglitazone
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome / complications*
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Rate
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Rosiglitazone
  • Thiazolidinediones / therapeutic use


  • Hypoglycemic Agents
  • Thiazolidinediones
  • Rosiglitazone
  • Clomiphene
  • Inositol
  • Metformin
  • Pioglitazone