Frequently, when following vigorous and often repeated flushing of follicles at egg retrieval they fail to yield eggs, it is ascribed to “Empty Follicle Syndrome.” This is a gross misnomer, because all follicles contain eggs. So why were no eggs retrieved from the follicles? Most likely it was because they would/could not yield the eggs they harbored.

This situation is most commonly seen in older women, women who have severely diminished ovarian reserve, and in women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). In my opinion it is often preventable when an optimal, individualized and strategic protocol for controlled ovarian stimulation (COS) is employed and the correct timing and dosage is applied to the “hCG trigger shot.”

Normally, following optimal ovarian stimulation, the hCG “trigger shot” is given for the purpose of it triggering meiosis (reproductive division) that is intended to halve the number of chromosomes from 46 to 23 within 32-36 hours. The hCG trigger also enables the egg to signal the “cumulus cells” that bind it firmly to the inner wall of the follicle (through enzymatic activity), to loosen or disperse, so that the egg can detach and readily be captured at egg retrieval (ER).

Ordinarily, normal eggs (and even those with only one or two chromosomal irregularities) will readily detach and be captured with the very first attempt to empty a follicle. Eggs that have several chromosomal numerical abnormalities (i.e., are “complex aneuploid”) are often unable to facilitate this process. This explains why when the egg is complex aneuploid, its follicle will not yield an egg…and why, when it requires repeated flushing of a follicle to harvest an egg, it is highly suggestive of it being aneuploid and thus “incompetent” (i.e., incapable of subsequently propagating a normal embryo).

Older women, women with diminished ovarian reserve, and those with polycystic ovarian syndrome, tend to have more biologically active LH in circulation. LH causes production of male hormone (androgens, predominantly testosterone), by ovarian connective tissue (stroma/theca). A little testosterone is needed for optimal follicle development and for FSH-induced ovogenesis (egg development). Too much LH activity compromises the latter, and eggs so affected are far more likely to be aneuploid following meiosis.

Women with the above conditions have increased LH activity and are thus more likely to produce excessive ovarian testosterone. It follows that sustained, premature elevations in LH or premature luteinization (often referred to as a “premature LH surge”) will prejudice egg development. Such compromised eggs are much more likely to end up being complex aneuploid following the administration of the hCG trigger, leading to fruitless attempts at retrieval and the so called “empty follicle syndrome.”

The developing eggs of women who have increased LH activity (older women, women with diminished ovarian reserve, and those with PCOS) are inordinately vulnerable to the effects of protracted exposure to LH-induced ovarian testosterone. Because of this, the administration of medications that provoke further pituitary LH release (e.g., clomiphene and Letrozole), drugs that contain LH or hCG (e.g., Menopur), or protocols of ovarian stimulation that provoke increased exposure to the woman’s own pituitary LH (e.g., “flare-agonist protocols”) and the use of “late pituitary blockade” (antagonist) protocols can be prejudicial.

The importance of individualizing COS protocol selection, precision with regard to the dosage and type of hCG trigger used, and the timing of its administration in such cases cannot be overstated. The ideal dosage of urinary-derived hCG (hCG-u) such as Novarel, Pregnyl and Profasi is 10,000U. When recombinant DNA-derived hCG (hCG-r) such as Ovidrel is used, the optimal dosage is 500mcg. A lower dosage of hCG can, by compromising meiosis, increase the risk of egg aneuploidy, and thus of IVF outcome.

There is in my opinion no such condition as “Empty Follicle Syndrome.” All follicles contain eggs. Failure to access those eggs at ER can often be a result of the protocol used for controlled ovarian stimulation.