What is Gonadal Failure?

What It Can Do To Your Body, and What Causes It

Doctor with teenage patient
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The gonads are the male and female primary reproductive organs. In males, the gonads are the testes and, in females, the gonads are the ovaries. These organs are necessary for sexual reproduction, as they are responsible for the production of male and female gametes (a cell that fuses with another cell during fertilization).

Gonads also produce the sex hormones needed for the growth and development of your primary and secondary reproductive organs and structures.

What Happens When Things Go Wrong?

Gonadal failure, also known as hypogonadism, is what occurs when the gonads cease functioning as efficiently as they once did. This diminished functioning may result in low androgen (testosterone) and estrogen levels, in addition to a decrease in other hormones produced by the gonads. Sperm production and ovulation in males and females, respectively, may be impaired, and this may then result in partial or complete infertility. This deficiency of the sex hormones can also result in defective sexual development, or in withdrawal effects (premature menopause) in adults. These effects are usually permanent.

How Will I Know I'm Experiencing Gonadal Failure?

This condition usually becomes evident during puberty. Women will fail to menstruate, which may affect their height and breast development. Onset in women after puberty causes the cessation of menstruation, lowered libido, loss of body hair and hot flashes.

In men, gonadal failure can cause impaired muscle and beard development and reduced height. It can also cause reduced body hair, enlarged breasts, the loss of muscle, and sexual difficulties.

What Causes Gonadal Failure?

This failure of the gonads may be caused by both congenital and developmental disorders, and also by certain infections including mumps, trauma, surgery, toxic exposure, and cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation.

More specifically, the childhood disease known as mumps, if acquired after puberty, can infect and destroy the testicles—a disease called viral orchitis. Ionizing radiation and chemotherapy, trauma, drugs, alcohol, marijuana, heroin, methadone, and environmental toxins can all damage testicles and decrease their hormone production. Severe diseases in the liver or kidneys, certain infections, sickle cell anemia, and some cancers also affect the gonads. 

Sometimes the pituitary develops a tumor that destroys it. Failure of the pituitary is called hypopituitarism, and it leaves the gonads with no stimulation to produce hormones.

Can It Be Treated?

Hormone replacement therapy is sometimes an option, but this treatment can carry other health risks.