21-Hydroxylase Deficiency physical examination

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Template:21-Hydroxylase Deficiency Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]


Severe, early onset 21-hydroxylase deficient CAH

The two most serious neonatal consequences of 21-hydroxylase deficiency occur when there is minimal measurable hydroxylase activity from prenatal life: severe virilization of female infants and life-threatening salt-wasting crises in the first month of life for XX and XY infants alike.

Physical Examination

Virilization of female infants

Virilization of genetically female (XX) infants usually produces obvious genital ambiguity. Inside the pelvis, the ovaries are normal and since they have not been exposed to testicular antimullerian hormone, the uterus, fallopian tubes, upper vagina, and other mullerian structures are normally formed as well. However, the high levels of testosterone in the blood can enlarge the phallus, partially or completely close the vaginal opening, enclose the urethral groove so that it opens at the base of the phallus, on the shaft or even at the tip like a boy. Testosterone can cause the labial skin to become as thin and rugated as a scrotum, but cannot produce palpable gonads (i.e., testes) in the folds.

Thus, depending on the severity of hyperandrogenism, a female infant can be mildly affected, obviously ambiguous, or so severely virilized as to appear to be a male. Andrea Prader devised the following Prader scale as a way of describing the degree of virilization.

  • An infant at stage 1 has a mildly large clitoris and slightly reduced vaginal opening size. This degree may go unnoticed or may be simply assumed to be within normal variation.
  • Stages 2 and 3 represent progressively more severe degrees of virlization. The genitalia are obviously abnormal to the eye, with a phallus intermediate in size and a small vaginal opening.
  • Stage 4 looks more male than female, with an empty scrotum and a phallus the size of a normal penis, but not quite free enough of the perineum to be pulled onto the abdomen toward the umbilicus (i.e., what is termed a chordee in a male). The single small urethral/vaginal opening at the base or on the shaft of the phallus would be considered a hypospadias in a male. X-rays taken after dye injection into this opening reveal the internal connection with the upper vagina and uterus. This common opening can predispose to urinary obstruction and infection.
  • Stage 5 denotes complete male virilization, with a normally formed penis with the urethral opening at or near the tip. The scrotum is normally formed but empty. The internal pelvic organs include normal ovaries and uterus, and the vagina connects internally with the urethra as in Stage 4. These infants are not visibly ambiguous are usually assumed to be ordinary boys with undescended testes. In most cases, the diagnosis of CAH is not suspected until signs of salt-wasting develop a week later.

When the genitalia are "recognized" to be ambiguous at birth, CAH is one of the leading diagnostic possibilities. Evaluation reveals the presence of a uterus, extreme elevation of 17OHP, levels of testosterone approaching or exceeding the male range but low AMH levels. The karyotype is that of an ordinary female: 46,XX. With this information, the diagnosis of CAH is readily made and female sex confirmed.

Evaluation of ambiguous genitalia is described in detail elsewhere. In most cases it is possible to confirm and assign female sex within 12-36 hours of birth. The exception are the rare, completely virilized genetic females (Prader stage 5), who present the most challenging assignment and surgery dilemmas, discussed below.

When the degree of ambiguity is obvious, corrective surgery is usually offered and performed. As reconstructive surgery on infant genitalia has become a focus of controversy, the issues are described in more detail below.