Infertility can be caused by any interruption in the usual process of fertilization, pregnancy, and birth, which includes ejaculation of normal amounts of healthy sperm, passage of the sperm through the cervix and into the fallopian tube of the female, passage of an ovum (egg) down the fallopian tube from an ovary, fertilization in the fallopian tube, implantation of the fertilized egg in a receptive uterus, and the ability to carry the fetus to term. In women, the most common problems are failure to ovulate and blockage of the fallopian tubes. In men, low sperm count is the most common problem.
Underlying problems include disease, such as diabetes or mumps in adult men, hormonal imbalances, endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease (often caused by sexually transmitted diseases, e.g., chlamydia), the abuse of alcohol and other drugs, and exposure to workplace hazards or environmental toxins. Uterine irritation or infection that sometimes accompanies IUD use can also reduce fertility. Occasionally there is a chemical or immunological incompatibility between male and female. Psychological factors are difficult to evaluate because of the stressful nature of infertility itself.
The number of couples seeking treatment for infertility has increased as more of them have postponed childbearing to a later age. In women, fertility begins to decline in the mid-twenties, and continues to decline, more and more sharply, until menopause. Male fertility declines gradually until age forty, then declines more quickly.
Evaluation includes examination of sperm, observation of basal body temperature or luteinizing hormone peaks (see gonadotropic hormone) in the female to determine whether ovulation is taking place, the ruling out of obstructions of the fallopian tubes or vas deferens, and blood tests that measure hormone levels. Treatment is geared to the specific problem. The first step may be treatment of underlying disease and, in men, avoidance of substances that might affect sperm count. Fertility drugs, some of which increase the likelihood of multiple births, are often prescribed. If necessary, surgical correction of blocked tubes can be attempted.
Artificial insemination, in which the man's sperm or donor sperm from a sperm bank is inserted directly into the woman or a surrogate mother may be attempted. Another method is in vitro fertilization, in which an egg is taken from the mother or an egg donor and fertilized outside the body by the father's sperm. The resulting embryo is then inserted into the mother's uterus. Gamete intrafallopian transfer (GIFT) mixes the egg and sperm outside the body, then, using laparoscopic surgery (see endoscope), introduces them into the fallopian tube. For men with low sperm count or sperm of low quality, a procedure called intracytoplasmic sperm injection can help by inserting a single sperm directly into an egg. If none of these measures succeeds, adoption is sometimes considered.
Some controversy has surrounded infertility treatment. Many of the procedures are very expensive, and some question whether insurance plans should be responsible for the cost. The multiple births that sometimes occur with fertility drugs can put great strain on a family's resources. The legal rights of surrogate mothers and sperm donors are also of concern to all parties and have sometimes been resolved only after extended court cases. The wisdom of stretching the definition of "the childbearing years" has come into question as well, as methods used for treating infertility have been used to allow postmenopausal women to have children. Some are uncomfortable with the ability to choose the sex of the child or the screening of sperm or egg donors for characteristics such as height and intelligence.
Infertility primarily refers to the biological inability of a man or a woman to contribute to conception. Infertility may also refer to the state of a woman who is unable to carry a pregnancy to full term. There are many biological causes of infertility, some which may be bypassed with medical intervention.
Women who are fertile experience a natural period of fertility before and during ovulation, and they are naturally infertile during the rest of the menstrual cycle. Fertility awareness methods are used to discern when these changes occur by tracking changes in cervical mucus or basal body temperature.
Some women are infertile because their ovaries do not mature and release eggs. In this case synthetic FSH by injection or Clomid (Clomiphene citrate) via a pill can be given to stimulate follicles to mature in the ovaries.
There are several possible reasons why it may not be happening naturally. In a third of cases, it can be because of male problems such as low sperm count.
Problems affecting women include endometriosis or damage to the fallopian tubes (which may have been caused by infections such as chlamydia).
Other factors that can affect a woman's chances of conceiving include being over- or underweight or her age - female fertility declines sharply after the age of 35. Sometimes it can be a combination of factors, and sometimes a clear cause is never established.
Factors that can cause male as well as female infertility are:
Women over the age of 35 should see their family doctor after six months as fertility tests can take some time to complete, and your age may affect the treatment options that are open in that case.
A family doctor will take a medical history and give you a physical examination. They can also carry out some basic tests on both partners to see if there is an identifiable reason for not having achieved a pregnancy yet. If necessary, they can refer you to a fertility clinic or your local hospital for more specialist tests. The results of these tests will help determine which is the best fertility treatment for you and your partner.
Prior to undergoing expensive fertility procedures, many women and couples will turn to online sources to determine their estimate chances of success. A take-home baby assessment can provide a best guess estimate compared with on women who have succeeded with in vitro fertilization, based on variables such as maternal age, duration of infertility and number of prior pregnancies.
Medical treatment of infertility generally involves the use of medication, surgery, or both. If the sperm are of good quality, and the mechanics of the woman’s reproductive structures are good (patent fallopian tubes, no adhesions or scarring) physicians may start by prescribing a course of ovarian stimulating medication. The physician may also suggest intrauterine insemination (IUI), in which the doctor introduces sperm into the uterus during ovulation, via a catheter. In these methods, fertilization occurs inside the body.
If conservative medical treatments fail to achieve a full term pregnancy, the physician may suggest the patient undergo in vitro fertilization (IVF). IVF and related techniques (ICSI, ZIFT, GIFT) are called assisted reproductive technology (ART) techniques.
ART techniques generally start with stimulating the ovaries to increase egg production. After stimulation, the physician surgically extracts one or more eggs from the ovary, and unites them with sperm in a laboratory setting, with the intent of producing one or more embryos. Fertilization takes place outside the body, and the fertilized egg is reinserted into the woman’s reproductive tract, in a procedure called embryo transfer.
Three complementary or alternative female infertility treatments have been scientifically tested, with results published in peer-reviewed medical journals.
Many countries have special frameworks for dealing with the ethical and social issues around fertility treatment.
Emotional stress and marital difficulties are greater in couples where the infertility lies with the man.
There are legal ramifications as well. Infertility has begun to gain more exposure to legal domains. An estimated 4 million workers in the U.S. used the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 2004 to care for a child, parent or spouse, or because of their own personal illness. Many treatments for infertility, including diagnostic tests, surgery and therapy for depression, can qualify one for FMLA leave.