Infertility is a difficult problem for many couples worldwide. Only in the United States, up to 11% of the reproductive-aged couples have fertility problems, which translates to about 6.7 million couples. Hearing the diagnosis of infertility is hard to bear, but fortunately, the problem can be treated, depending on its cause and severity.
When it comes to male infertility, in particular, the causes can vary wildly, from medical and environmental to lifestyle choices. Genetic risk factors may also play a role. It’s important to note that, in many cases, couples can treat infertility and successfully carry the child to term with the proper fertility medications. Let’s have a closer look at male infertility, its causes and treatment options:
What Is Infertility?
When a couple has been actively trying to conceive a child for over a year without success, infertility is usually the cause. Of course, this definition takes into account the frequency of the couple’s sexual intercourses and whether they were protected or not. If a couple is unable to conceive a child, the cause can be male infertility, female infertility, and a combination of both, and they’re mostly equally frequent. From this information, we can conclude that male infertility is the cause of the inability of the couple to conceive about one-third of the time.
What Are the Conditions for Fertility?
The ability to conceive a child from the male perspective has a number of conditions that must be met. The first is to have functioning testicles, meaning that they can help produce the hormones necessary to maintain healthy levels of sperm production. That’s mainly testosterone, although there are other supporting hormones involved in the process. Then, the sperm cells need to be correctly shaped and have the ability to move freely. If that’s not the case, sperm cells will likely have difficulties reaching and penetrating the egg to fertilize it, which can be just enough to prevent conception if there are female infertility issues at play. Finally, the tubes that are responsible for transporting sperm cells through the penis need to stay unobstructed and preserved. In the case of trauma to the groin area, they’re at risk because they’re quite delicate.
Symptoms of Male Infertility
The inability of the couple to conceive is the primary symptom of infertility, but when it comes to male infertility, there may be a range of other symptoms that could help diagnose it or point to the underlying cause of the problem. They can vary from inherited disorders, medical conditions that affect the passage of sperm, or simply hormonal imbalances. These symptoms include:
- Low sperm count
- Erectile dysfunction
- Ejaculation difficulties
- History of problems with testicles or prostate
- Swelling, lumps or pain in the testicle area
- Surgery or repeated trauma to the groin area
- Signs of hormonal abnormality or disbalance such as decreased body or facial hair
According to the presence of these symptoms, the underlying cause of male infertility could be further narrowed down and precisely diagnosed.
Potential Causes of Male Infertility
As we can tell from the symptoms, there are three primary factors involved in male infertility:
- Physical blockages that prevent the sperm from moving unobstructed;
- Low mobility or incorrectly shaped sperm cells;
- Low sperm count.
However, there can be other underlying issues that contribute to these problems or create new ones. This is why male infertility causes are usually placed into three different groups, depending on whether they’re caused by a medical issue, lifestyle choices or environmental factors.
Medical Causes of Male Infertility
Most of the time, male infertility is caused by various medical factors. These include anything from hormone issues to ejaculation issues, infections, defects, and anything in between. Some of these medical causes include:
- Damaged sperm ducts, caused by illness or injury, including genetic conditions where the male is born without sperm ducts;
- Hormone imbalances caused by testicular disorders as well as issues with other glands that help produce testosterone, such as the hypothalamus, thyroid, pituitary, and adrenal glands;
- Sperm-attacking antibodies that confuse sperm with harmful cells and eliminate them;
- Erectile dysfunction, painful intercourse, hypospadias, premature ejaculation, and other sexual intercourse problems;
- Viral and bacterial infections that cause scarring in the sperm ducts and blockage of sperm, including gonorrhea, chlamydia, mumps orchitis and inflammation prostatitis;
- Tumors that affect the glands of male reproductive organs;
- Chromosome defects that cause abnormal development of the reproductive organs;
- Undescended testicles;
- Medications such as testosterone replacement therapy, anabolic steroids, chemotherapy, and some antifungal medications.
Lifestyle Risk Factors
There are other causes of male infertility which may depend on the lifestyle and health of each individual. They include:
- Occupations that work with toxins, use computers or video display monitors extensively, have a high level of stress or extreme shift work;
- Alcohol and drug use which can have adverse effects on sperm production and testosterone levels;
- Smoking and being exposed to secondhand smoke;
- Obesity (with a BMI over 30);
- Emotional stress that is extreme and can cause lower production of hormones that stimulate sperm production.
Finally, there is a number of environmental causes of male infertility that can permanently decrease sperm production:
- Excessive heat on the groin area, from laptops, sauna, or hot tubs;
- Exposure to industrial chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, xylene, toluene, organic solvents, benzenes, and paint and varnish products;
- Exposure to lead or other heavy metals;
- Undergoing radiation or X-ray.
Diagnosing Male Infertility
If you’re suspecting infertility as the cause of conception problems, the first step is visiting the doctor who may refer you to a fertility specialist. Diagnosing male infertility usually involves providing plenty of background medical information and a detailed description of your symptoms, even those that may seem unrelated to infertility. It often involves testing of both partners in order to determine the exact cause. Standard testing involves a physical examination of genitals, semen analysis, and any additional tests such as anti-sperm antibody tests, testicular biopsy, hormone, and sperm function tests, etc.
When treating male infertility, it’s important to correct whatever the underlying cause is, if it can be identified. This may even be surgery if the cause is an obstructed vas deferens, antibiotic treatment, hormone treatment, as well as assisted reproductive technology treatments.
Infertility can be difficult and expensive to deal with, but there is a range of treatments that help affected couples conceive and carry a healthy child to term, depending on what the cause of infertility is. Treatment is focused on improving fertility by fixing the underlying problem, so a correct diagnosis is very important.
Author: Kirill Vesselov
Kirill Vesslov is our resident writer about health and wellness as well as our pharmacy services.