In the past, infertility was considered primarily a “female problem” but we now know that up to half of all infertile couples will have a male infertility component.
"Fertile" males with no "male infertility component", can father children throughout their adult lives. This is unlike women, who have a finite reproductive life span. Sperm are "manufactured" in the testicles and travel through the epididymis and the vas deferens when ejaculated. Interestingly, sperm require three months to fully develop so a semen analysis conducted today is reflective of “sperm conditions” over the past three months. A condition causing infertility three months ago could have been resolved by the time the semen analysis is performed.
Sperm are sensitive to heat and cold and nature devised the scrotum to help control their temperature. When the testicles become too hot, the scrotum expands moving them further away from the body, thus lowering temperature. Prolonged high temperatures can lead to male infertility as evidenced by decreased sperm quality and quantity. When the testicles become “too cool” the scrotum contracts bringing them closer to the body for warming.
Male infertility can be caused by many different environmental conditions. Many of the environmental causes are temporary and normal male fertility returns when the conditions are resolved. For example, men trying to initiate a pregnancy should not engage in activities, such as prolonged sitting in a hot tub, which will cause testicular temperature increases. Clothing that is too tight may also interfere with scrotal function. Some occupations that require prolonged sitting can cause declines in sperm count and/or quality.
Smoking, excessive drinking, exposure to heavy metals, marijuana, chemotherapy, radiation and other environmental factors can lead to male infertility. In most cases of environmentally caused male infertility, such as prolonged sitting in a hot tub, normal fertility returns once this activity is stopped. On the other hand male infertility caused by certain heavy metals, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy may be permanent.
Male infertility can be caused when a man develops antibodies to his own sperm (rare) usually as a result of testicular trauma or a vasectomy. When this occurs, his immune system seeks to destroy sperm as if they were invading bacteria or viruses.
Male factor can also be caused by a varicocele, which is a mass of varicose veins in the spermatic cord. It is most common on the left side. Veins carry heat from the testicles by circulating blood. When the veins are dilated, as occurs with a varicocele, it interferes with these cooling/heating functions.
Varicoceles can have a variable impact on sperm quality and a complete evaluation should be completed prior to attributing the major male infertility problem to a varicocele. Small to moderate varicoceles often do not have a significant impact on sperm quality. On the other hand, large varicoceles may decrease sperm quality but fortunately, they can usually be effectively treated surgically by a urologist (surgery for varicocelectomy) or radiologist (interventional procedure requiring spring placement).
The prognosis for male infertility has improved dramatically over the last ten years. Since the advent of intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), a pregnancy can be initiated when as few as one sperm can be obtained. Prior to ICSI, the only option for couples with moderate to severe male infertility was to use a sperm donor. Using ICSI, the sperm is injected directly into the egg as a part of an IVF cycle.
Sperm can be obtained from an ejaculate, by testicular biopsy or needle aspiration, or from other parts of the reproductive tract such as the epididymis. This breakthrough technology enables most men to have genetically related children.
Male infertility is created as a means of birth control when the vas deferens are surgically "cut" in the vasectomy. Life situations change , such as the loss of a spouse, and we often see men who wish to have a surgical vasectomy reversed.
While a skilled surgeon can often reconnect the tubes, a vasectomy must be considered a permanent means of birth control not to be undertaken lightly. We strongly encourage vasectomy patients to freeze their sperm prior to the procedure in case there are future changes in their life situations.
Generally, per cycle success rates in men with vasectomies are higher for IVF than surgical reversal. Another option to vasectomy reversal that many patients prefer is IVF with testicular aspiration and ICSI. Usually IVF success rates are much higher per cycle than after vasectomy reversal. Read our page on "fertility options post vasectomy".
With male infertility there is no effective drug treatment to improve sperm quality and quantity. Clomid and FSH have been used to treat male infertility but they must be administered for at least three months, are extremely expensive, and improvements in sperm parameters are often minor. The exception is the rare male that has severe deficiencies of FSH and LH, a condition known as hypogonadotropic hypogonadism. To the best of our knowledge, all of the male infertility products touted on the Internet have little or no scientific verifiability of clinical effectiveness.
Fortunately, with today’s technologies most men suffering with male infertility, can father genetically related children. It is also possible for men to freeze sperm thus preserving their fertility. This is especially important for men who will undergo cancer treatments.