In 1937, Joe Vincent Meigs and John W Cass reported a series of 7 cases of ovarian fibroma associated with ascites and hydrothorax. It was later termed Meigs syndrome by Rhodes and Terrell. Even though the association of benign ovarian tumors and pleural effusion was reported before, it was Meigs and Cass who reported the resolution of ascites and pleural effusion after the removal of the tumor. Eventually, several authors reported similar cases, and Meigs syndrome became a distinct entity. Meigs eventually redefined the syndrome in 1954. The following criteria are to be met for the diagnosis of Meigs syndrome – a) Presence of the benign tumor of the ovary – Fibroma, thecoma, granulosa cell tumor or Brenner tumor b) ascites c) pleural effusion and d) a resolution of ascites and pleural effusion after removal of the tumor. This syndrome is sometimes called Demons-Meigs syndrome after another author who described a similar presentation before Meigs.
Some patients have either ascites or pleural effusion with benign ovarian tumors and are classified as Atypical/Incomplete Meigs syndrome.
Pericardial effusion is not included in the definition of Meigs syndrome; however, there have been case reports in patients with unexplained persistent pericardial effusion, which resolved after the resection of a benign ovarian tumor.
The etiology of Meigs syndrome is unknown.
Meigs syndrome happens in 1% of all ovarian tumors. It is most commonly associated with ovarian fibroma. Ovarian fibromas are diagnosed in 2 to 5% of excised ovarian tumors.
Although cases have been reported in women before their third decade, Meigs syndrome is extremely rare in women younger than 30 years old. The syndrome is much more common on postmenopausal women, especially around 50 years, and its peak incidence is in the women in their seven-decade.
The pathophysiology of ascites and pleural effusion in Meigs syndrome is not well established. Meigs theorized that ascites is due to the pressure of the tumor on the abdominal lymphatics and the ascitic fluid then transudates into the pleural cavity. He demonstrated the presence of India ink particles in the thoracic cavity when injected into the ascitic fluid.
The other proposed theories are hormonal stimulation, torsion of the tumor, and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) production by the tumor, which can increase capillary permeability. However, these theories are not proven, and there no consensus on the pathophysiology of Meigs syndrome.
A typical presentation is in a post-menopausal woman or uncommonly in a younger woman. Ovarian tumors in children and adolescents could be associated with Gorlin syndrome.
Symptoms related to ovarian tumors could remain indolent for a long time unless the tumor secretes steroid hormones. Androgen excess may present as virilization, and estrogen excess may present as abnormal uterine bleeding, endometrial neoplasm, and in a child as precocious puberty. Other symptoms related to the tumor itself are abdominal distension due to a large tumor, uterine prolapse, urinary incontinence, fatigue, weight loss, and pedal edema.
Symptoms related to pleural effusion include dyspnea, dry cough, and pleurisy. The pleural effusions are usually right-sided, even though the left and bilateral effusions are possible. The size of the pleural effusion is independent of the size of the ascites.
Symptoms related to ascites include abdominal distension.
The physical exam may show palpable adnexal masses on abdominal or transvaginal examination, signs of pleural effusion like diminished breath sounds, egophony on pulmonary auscultation, dullness on chest percussion, jugular venous distension, and/or signs of ascites such as distended abdomen with fluid thrill. A thorough lymph node and skin examination should be conducted to look for skin cancers, especially basal cell cancer.
A good history and physical examination are essential first steps in the diagnosis of Meigs syndrome. Any woman with signs and symptoms of ascites and pleural effusion would warrant evaluation for pelvic masses. Every effort should be made at the evaluation stage to rule out important differential diagnoses, especially carcinomatoses. A definitive diagnosis of Meigs syndrome could only be made after the removal of the tumor, followed by the resolution of the ascites and pleural effusion. Also, essential to the diagnosis of Meigs syndrome is that histopathology of the ovarian mass has to be a benign tumor.
Laboratory studies: Routine blood tests like complete blood count, comprehensive metabolic panel, lipid panel, PT/INR, pro-BNP, and urine analysis will help recognize conditions like anemia, macrocytosis, hypoalbuminemia, proteinuria, liver failure, congestive heart failure.
Even though the elevation of serum CA 125 is suggestive of ovarian cancer, its co-incidence with Meigs syndrome has been described in the literature. The scope of this test in Meigs syndrome is limited. Like with many other tumor markers, its real value lies in the surveillance and evaluating response to cancer treatment.
Monitoring serum sex hormones will help evaluate the ovarian lesions in patients with virilization or symptoms of estrogen excess.
Imaging: Chest X-ray helps us recognize the pleural effusion and also evaluate for metastases.
CT scan abdomen helps us delineate an alternative etiology for ascites like malignant lesions, metastases, cirrhosis of the liver.
Pelvic ultrasound is a key imaging modality to evaluate pelvic organs, especially for any smaller lesions.
PET CT Scan some time may help delineate malignant tumors if there is strong suspicion.
Endoscopy: In patients with risk factors for gastrointestinal malignancy, an esophagogastroduodenoscopy and colonoscopy should be considered to rule out esophageal, gastric, and colon cancers.
Fluid Analysis and cytology: Thoracentesis and paracentesis are not only diagnostic modalities but also will provide temporary symptomatic relief for the patients with ongoing investigations.
The pleural fluid analysis includes testing for protein, LDH, cytology, gram stain, and cultures. Even though in a majority of the patients with Meigs syndrome, the pleural fluid is an exudate, there have been reports of transudative effusions. Hence, either type of pleural fluid can be seen in these patients.
Similarly, peritoneal fluid is analyzed for cytology, gram stain, and cultures. Albumin levels might be of value as a SAAG (Serum Ascites Albumin Gradient) > 1.1 g/dL may indicate portal hypertension.
Tuberculosis testing including TB skin tests, pleural and peritoneal fluid testing for AFB smear and cultures, adenosine deaminase test on pleural fluid and molecular testing could be considered on the patients with risk factors based on their symptomatology.
Symptomatic treatment: Patients with large pleural effusions will need recurrent thoracentesis for managing dyspnea. Likewise, paracentesis will help them with abdominal discomfort and troubled breathing.
Curative treatment: Abdominal surgery (laparotomy or laparoscopy) with the removal of the tumor for the frozen section is initially performed. If the tumor is benign, especially in young patients who want to preserve their fertility, a unilateral salpingo-oophorectomy is performed. In postmenopausal women, a total abdominal hysterectomy with bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy is performed.
Meigs syndrome cannot be diagnosed until we subject the patient to surgery. Hence, it is essential that alternative diagnoses are considered and, to an extent, ruled out before contemplating abdominal surgery. The following are the important differential diagnoses.
Meigs syndrome is a benign condition, and early detection and intervention result in a good prognosis. The pleural effusion and ascites will resolve permanently once the patient’s tumor is resected. The life expectancy postoperatively is equivalent to the general population post-surgery.
Unrecognized and untreated patients will be subjected to multiple thoracenteses and paracenteses. And this could lead to complications related to these repetitive procedures, including infection, bleeding, dehydration, and hypoalbuminemia.
Patients may develop complications due to ovarian tumors, including ongoing cachexia, severe pedal edema, deep venous thrombosis, severe fatigue, uterine prolapse, urinary frequency, and incontinence. Hormone producing ovarian tumors may cause severe anemia due to abnormal uterine bleeding and, on rare occasions, could cause the development of endometrial cancer.
Patients should be advised that if they develop shortness of breath or distended abdomen, they should seek medical help for evaluation. Even though Meigs syndrome is a treatable condition, its diagnosis is only made after a systematic assessment of the patient with a good history, physical examination, and appropriate initial laboratory testing and imaging studies. Patients should be counseled about the benign nature of the condition. Timely referral to a subspecialist could eventually cure this condition. It is imperative to note that the differential diagnoses include cancers of various primaries, which, if ignored, could lead to potentially terminally ill conditions.
The clinical presentation of Meigs syndrome could mirror the clinical picture of a malignant ovarian tumor with pleural and abdominal metastases. If the tumor is deemed inoperable without the evidence of the malignant nature of the tumor, a potential opportunity of cure could be missed. Hence health care professionals need to keep Meigs syndrome in the differential in any female with ascites and pleural effusion.
Pathophysiology of Meigs syndrome is still not well explained, further studies on this topic may throw some light on earlier diagnosis of the condition. [Level 4]
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