Genitourinary Syndrome of Menopause: Current and Emerging Therapies

Author(s):  Mickey Karram, MD  Eric R. Sokol, MD  Stefano Salvatore, MD

Genitourinary syndrome of menopause (GSM) is the new terminology to describe symptoms occurring secondary to vulvovaginal atrophy.1 The recent change in terminology originated with a consensus panel comprising the board of directors of the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health (ISSWSH) and the board of trustees of the North American Menopause Society (NAMS). At a terminology consensus conference in May 2013, these groups determined that the term GSM is medically more accurate and all encompassing than vulvovaginal atrophy. It is also more publicly acceptable.

The symptoms of GSM derive from the hypoestrogenic state most commonly associated with menopause and its effects on the genitourinary tract.2 Vaginal symptoms associated with GSM include vaginal or vulvar dryness, discharge, itching, and dyspareunia.3 Histologically, a loss of superficial epithelial cells in the genitourinary tract leads to thinning of the tissue. There is then a loss of vaginal rugae and elasticity, leading to narrowing and shortening of the vagina. 

In addition, the vaginal epithelium becomes much more fragile, which can lead to tears, bleeding, and fissures. There is also a loss of the subcutaneous fat of the labia majora, a change that can result in narrowing of the introitus, fusion of the labia majora, and shrinkage of the clitoral prepuce and urethra. The vaginal pH level becomes more alkaline, which may alter vaginal flora and increase the risk of urogenital infections—specifically, urinary tract infection (UTI). Vaginal secretions, largely transudate, from the vaginal vasculature also decrease over time. These changes lead to significant dyspareunia and impairment of sexual function. 

In this article, we survey the therapies available for GSM, focusing first on proven treatments such as local estrogen administration and use of ospemifene (Osphena), and then describing an emerging treatment involving the use of fractional CO2 laser. 

How prevalent is GSM?
Approximately half of all postmenopausal women in the United States report atrophy-related symptoms and a significant negative effect on quality of life.4–6 Few women with these symptoms seek medical attention. 

The Vaginal Health: Insights, Views, and Attitudes (VIVA) survey found that 80% of women with genital atrophy considered its impact on their lives to be negative, 75% reported negative consequences in their sexual life, 68% reported that it made them feel less sexual, 33% reported negative effects on their marriage or relationship, and 26% reported a negative impact on their self-esteem.7

Another review of the impact of this condition by Nappi and Palacios estimated that, by the year 2025, there will be 1.1 billion women worldwide older than age 50 with specific needs related to GSM.8 Nappi and Palacios cite 4 recent surveys that suggest that health care providers need to be more proactive in helping patients disclose their symptoms. The same can be said of other symptoms of the urinary tract, such as urinary frequency, urgency, and incontinence, as well as pelvic floor relaxation. 

A recently published international survey on vaginal atrophy not only depicts the extremely high prevalence of the condition but also describes fairly significant differences in attitudes toward symptoms between countries in Europe and North America.9 Overall, 77% of respondents, who included more than 4,000 menopausal women, believed that women were uncomfortable discussing symptoms of vaginal atrophy.9

Pastore and colleagues, using data from the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), found the most prevalent urogenital symptoms to be vaginal dryness (27%), vaginal irritation or itching (18.6%), vaginal discharge (11.1%), and dysuria (5.2%).4 Unlike vasomotor symptoms of menopause, which tend to decrease over time, GSM does not spontaneously remit and commonly recurs when hormone therapy—the dominant treatment—is withdrawn.

What can we offer our patients?
Vaginal estrogen
The most common therapy used to manage GSM is estrogen. Most recommendations state that if the primary menopausal symptoms are related to vaginal atrophy, then local estrogen administration should be the primary mode of therapy. The Society of Gynecologic Surgeons Systematic Review Group recently concluded that all commercially available vaginal estrogens effectively can relieve common vulvovaginal atrophy−related symptoms and have additional utility in women with urinary urgency, frequency, stress incontinence, urge incontinence, and recurrent UTIs.10 Although their meta-­analysis clearly demonstrated that estrogen therapy improves the symptoms of GSM, investigators acknowledged that a clearer understanding is needed of the exact risk to the endometrium with sustained use of vaginal estrogen, as well as a more precise assessment of changes in serum estradiol levels.10

A recent Cochrane review concluded that all forms of local estrogen appear to be equally effective for symptoms of vaginal atrophy.11 One trial cited in the review found significant adverse effects following administration of cream, compared with tablets, causing uterine bleeding, breast pain, and perineal pain.

Another trial cited in the Cochrane review found significant endometrial overstimulation following use of cream, compared with the vaginal ring. As a treatment of choice, women appeared to favor the estradiol-releasing vaginal ring for ease of use, comfort of product, and overall satisfaction.11

After the release of the WHI data, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a “black box” warning on postmenopausal hormone use in women, which has significantly reduced the use of both local and systemic estrogen in eligible women. NAMS has recommended that the FDA revisit this warning, calling specifically for an independent commission to scrutinize every major WHI paper to determine whether the data justify the conclusions drawn.12

Most data back local estrogen as treatment for GSM
In 2013, the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) issued a position statement noting that the choice of therapy for genitourinary syndrome of menopause (GSM) depends on the severity of symptoms, the efficacy and safety of therapy for the individual patient, and patient preference.1

To date, estrogen therapy is the most effective treatment for moderate to severe GSM, although a direct comparison of estrogen and ospemifene is lacking. Nonhormonal therapies available without a prescription provide sufficient relief for most women with mild symptoms. When low-dose estrogen is administered locally, a progestin is not indicated for women without a uterus—and generally is not indicated for women with an intact uterus. However, endometrial safety has not been studied in clinical trials beyond 1 year. Data are insufficient to confirm the safety of local estrogen in women with breast cancer. 

Future research on the use of the fractional CO2 laser, which seems to be a promising emerging therapy, may provide clinicians with another option to treat the common and distressing problem of GSM. 

Reference

1. Management of symptomatic vulvovaginal atrophy: 2013 position statement of the North American Menopause Society. Menopause. 2013;20(9):888–902.

Ospemifene
This estrogen agonist and antagonist selectively stimulates or inhibits estrogen receptors of different target tissues, making it a selective estrogen receptor modulator (SERM). In a study involving 826 postmenopausal women randomly allocated to 30 mg or 60 mg of ospemifene, the 60-mg dose proved to be more effective for improving vulvovaginal atrophy.13 Long-term safety studies revealed that ospemifene 60 mg given daily for 52 weeks was well tolerated and not associated with any endometrial- or breast-related safety issues.13,14 Common adverse effects of ospemifene reported during clinical trials included hot flashes, vaginal discharge, muscle spasms, general discharge, and excessive sweating.12

Vaginal lubricants and moisturizers
Nonestrogen water- or silicone-based vaginal lubricants and moisturizers may alleviate vaginal symptoms related to menopause. These products may be particularly helpful for women who do not wish to use hormone therapies. 

Vaginal lubricants are intended to relieve friction and dyspareunia related to vaginal dryness during intercourse, with the ultimate goal of trapping moisture and providing long-term relief of vaginal dryness. 

Although data are limited on the efficacy of these products, prospective studies have demonstrated that vaginal moisturizers improve vaginal dryness, pH balance, and elasticity and reduce vaginal itching, irritation, and dyspareunia.

Data are insufficient to support the use of herbal remedies or soy products for the treatment of vaginal symptoms.