Hypogonadism occurs when the body's sex glands produce little or no hormones. In men, these glands (gonads) are the testes. In women, these glands are the ovaries.
The cause of hypogonadism can be primary or central. In primary hypogonadism, the ovaries or testes themselves do not function properly. Causes of primary hypogonadism include:
- Certain autoimmune disorders
- Genetic and developmental disorders
- Liver and kidney disease
If you already have other autoimmune disorders you may be at higher risk of autoimmune damage to the gonads. These can include disorders that affect the liver and adrenal and thyroid glands as well as type 1 diabetes.
In central hypogonadism, the centers in the brain that control the gonads (hypothalamus and pituitary) do not function properly. Causes of central hypogonadism include:
- Anorexia nervosa
- Bleeding in the area of the pituitary
- Taking medicines, such as glucocorticoids and opiates
- Stopping anabolic steriods
- Genetic problems
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Iron excess (hemochromatosis)
- Rapid, significant weight loss (including weight loss after bariatric surgery)
A genetic cause of central hypogonadism is Kallmann syndrome. Many people with this condition also have a decreased sense of smell.
Girls who have hypogonadism will not begin menstruating. Hypogonadism can affect their breast development and height. If hypogonadism occurs after puberty, symptoms in women include:
- Hot flashes
- Energy and mood changes
- Menstruation stops
In boys, hypogonadism affects muscle, beard, genital and voice development. It also leads to growth problems. In men the symptoms are:
- Breast enlargement
- Muscle loss
- Decreased interest in sex (low libido)
If a pituitary or other brain tumor is present (central hypogonadism), there may be:
- Headaches or vision loss
- Milky breast discharge (from a prolactinoma)
- Symptoms of other hormonal deficiencies (such as hypothyroidism)
The most common tumors affecting the pituitary are craniopharyngioma in children and prolactinoma adenomas in adults.
Exams and Tests
You may need to have tests to check:
Other tests may include:
- Blood tests for anemia and iron
- Genetic tests
- Prolactin level (milk hormone)
- Sperm count
- Thyroid tests
You may need to take hormone-based medicines. Estrogen and progesterone are used for girls and women. The medicines comes come in the form of a pill or skin patch. Testosterone is used for boys and men. The medicine can be given as a skin patch, skin gel, a solution applied to the armpit, a patch applied to the upper gum, or by injection.
For women who have not had their uterus removed, combination treatment with estrogen and progesterone may decrease the chance of developing endometrial cancer. Women with hypogonadism who have low sex drive may also be prescribed low-dose testosterone.
In some women, injections or pills can be used to stimulate ovulation. Injections of pituitary hormone may be used to help men produce sperm. Other people may need surgery and radiation therapy.
Many forms of hypogonadism are treatable and have a good outlook.
In women, hypogonadism may cause infertility. Menopause is a form of hypogonadism that occurs naturally and can cause hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and irritability as a woman's estrogen levels fall. The risk of osteoporosis and heart disease increase after menopause.
Some women with hypogonadism take estrogen therapy, especially those who have early menopause. But long-term used of hormone therapy can increase the risk of breast cancer, blood clots and heart disease. Women should talk with their health care provider about the risks and benefits of hormone replacement therapy with your doctor.
In men, hypogonadism results in loss of sex drive and may cause:
Men normally have lower testosterone as they age. However, the decline in hormone levels is not as dramatic as it is in women.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Talk to your health care provider if you notice:
- Breast discharge
- Breast enlargement (men)
- Hot flashes (women)
- Loss of body hair
- Loss of menstrual period
- Problems getting pregnant
- Problems with your sex drive
Both men and women should call their provider if they have headaches or vision problems.
Maintain normal body weight and healthy eating habits may help in some cases. Other causes may not be preventable.
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Bhasin S, Cunningham GR, Hayes FJ, et al. Testosterone therapy in adult men with androgen deficiency syndromes: An Endocrine Society Clinical Practice guideline. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2010;95:2536-2559. PMID: 20525905. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=20525905
Kansra AR, Donohoue PA. Hypofunction of the ovaries. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme JW III, et al., eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 580.
Swerdloff RS, Wang C. The testis and male sexual function. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 242.
Reviewed By: Brent Wisse, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Metabolism, Endocrinology & Nutrition, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.