There are several factors which affect male fertility — including environmental, lifestyle, congenital and health related. While a woman’s fertility can be much more complicated landscape due to a complex reproductive tract which is affected by a combination of hormones, lifestyle and environment, getting to the bottom of male infertility is often a bit more straightforward. Although it may be an oversimplification, male fertility can be summed up in one word — sperm. Male fertility basically comes down to if he’s got it, got enough of it and if it’s swimming. Don’t scoff at the boxer over briefs debate — even seemingly inconsequential things like choice in underwear can affect male fertility.
Estimates of what part male infertility contributes to a couple’s fertility ranges from 30% to 50%. A couple is considered infertile if they have been having regular, unprotected sex for at least a year without successfully conceiving. Age may be a factor as well, and if an older couple (over 35) has been trying for six months, a doctor may start treatments for infertility earlier. Your doctor will conduct a physical exam to ascertain your overall health, complete a medical history to rule out congenital disease or conditions, and to screen for any infection or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) which can impact male fertility. A sample of your sperm will be examined for quantity, quality and motility.
Physical Problems that May Affect Male Fertility
The condition, varicocele, is considered to be the primary cause of male infertility. The scrotum has veins that become enlarged or dilated. These run on both sides of the scrotum and either one or both of them can enlarge, raising the temperature of the scrotum internally. This impacts the production of sperm. Men who are diagnosed with varicocele may have surgery to correct it, which, within two years, boasts a 69% pregnancy success rate.
Sperm ducts may also be blocked due to past injury, infection, vasectomy or a congenital blockage. Sperm may not be produced, or are not ejaculated. Many cases of blockages can be corrected in an outpatient surgical procedure. Some doctors will find that a simple round of antibiotics to treat a low grade infection will help reduce inflammation and improve the “flow,” so to speak.
Problems Affecting Sperm
One of the most common problems that causes male infertility is azoospermia, which means that there is no sperm being produced. Some men also experience oligospermia which is a low sperm count. This can be attributed to the physical factors listed above, or other factors including medicines, infections, hormones, injury, or genetic condition.
In addition to low sperm count, men can have sperm that is malformed or has low motility. Motility refers to how well the sperm can “swim.” The quality of a man’s sperm can be affected by a number of environmental and genetic factors, as well as his motility. Certain fertility drugs may improve the quality and motility of sperm well enough to facilitate natural conception, but often in vitro fertilization (IVF) or intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) is more successful.
Other factors that contribute to low sperm count or no sperm include:
- Poor nutrition: low levels of folate, zinc and vitamin C
- Genetic conditions such as cystic fibrosis
- Environmental toxins such as chemicals in the workplace
- Lifestyle choices such as smoking, alcohol and illegal drugs
- Weight gain/Exercise: Extra weight, especially around the belly can contribute to reduced testosterone production
- Frequent use of hot tubs: Heat certainly does kill sperm, so if you’re trying to get pregnant, it’s smart to avoid using them.
Other medical conditions such as erectile dysfunction or undescended testicles can also affect male fertility. Remember that it can take up to two months to produce a new batch of sperm, so if you’re trying to boost your fertility on your own, give yourself a couple of months to see if your efforts are successful. If you feel that you have any conditions that are affecting your fertility, don’t hesitate to consult your doctor. The outlook for male infertility is fairly good — approximately half of the cases of male infertility can be successfully treated.