Investigation and management of subfertility

J Clin Pathol. 2019 Sep;72(9):579-587. doi: 10.1136/jclinpath-2018-205579. Epub 2019 Jul 11.


Subfertility affects one in seven couples and is defined as the inability to conceive after 1 year of regular unprotected intercourse. This article describes the initial clinical evaluation and investigation to guide diagnosis and management. The primary assessment of subfertility is to establish the presence of ovulation, normal uterine cavity and patent fallopian tubes in women, and normal semen parameters in men. Ovulation is supported by a history of regular menstrual cycles (21-35 days) and confirmed by a serum progesterone >30 nmol/L during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. Common causes of anovulation include polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), hypothalamic amenorrhoea (HA) and premature ovarian insufficiency (POI). Tubal patency is assessed by hysterosalpingography, hystero-contrast sonography, or more invasively by laparoscopy and dye test. The presence of clinical or biochemical hyperandrogenism, serum gonadotrophins (luteinising hormone/follicle stimulating hormone) / oestradiol, pelvic ultrasound to assess ovarian morphology / antral follicle count, can help establish the cause of anovulation. Ovulation can be restored in women with PCOS using letrozole (an aromatase inhibitor), clomifene citrate (an oestrogen antagonist) or exogenous gonadotrophin administration. If available, pulsatile gonadotrophin releasing hormone therapy is the preferred option for restoring ovulation in HA. Spermatogenesis can be induced in men with hypogonadotrophic hypogonadism with exogenous gonadotrophins. Unexplained subfertility can be treated with in vitro fertilisation after 2 years of trying to conceive. Involuntary childlessness is associated with significant psychological morbidity; hence, expert assessment and prompt treatment are necessary to support such couples.

Keywords: biochemistry; diagnostics; endocrinology; fertility; laboratory tests.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Fertility*
  • Humans
  • Infertility, Female / diagnosis
  • Infertility, Female / etiology
  • Infertility, Female / physiopathology
  • Infertility, Female / therapy*
  • Infertility, Male / diagnosis
  • Infertility, Male / etiology
  • Infertility, Male / physiopathology
  • Infertility, Male / therapy*
  • Male
  • Ovulation
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Pregnancy
  • Reproductive Techniques, Assisted*
  • Risk Factors
  • Spermatogenesis
  • Time-to-Pregnancy
  • Treatment Outcome