It is not uncommon to have trouble becoming pregnant or to experience infertility. Infertility is defined as not being able to become pregnant, despite trying for one year, in women under age 35, or after six months in women 35 and over. Pregnancy is the result of a chain of events. As described in the Fertility Awareness section, a woman must release an egg from one of her ovaries (ovulation). The egg must travel through a fallopian tube toward her uterus. A man's sperm must join with (fertilize) the egg along the way. The fertilized egg must then become attached to the inside of the uterus. While this may seem simple, in fact many things can happen to prevent pregnancy.
Reasons for Infertility
There are many different reasons why a couple might have infertility. One is age-related. Women today are often delaying having children until later in life, when they are in their 30s and 40s. A couple of things add to this trend. Birth control is easy to obtain and use, more women are in the work force, women are marrying at an older age, the divorce rate remains high, and married couples are delaying pregnancy until they are more financially secure. But the older you are, the harder it is to become pregnant. Women generally have some decrease in fertility starting in their early 30s. And while many women in their 30s and 40s have no problems getting pregnant, fertility especially declines after age 35.
As a woman ages, there are normal changes that occur in her ovaries and eggs. All women are born with over a million eggs in their ovaries (all the eggs that they will ever have), but only have about 300,000 left by puberty. Then of these, only about 300 eggs will be ovulated during the reproductive years. Even though menstrual cycles continue to be regular in a woman's 30s and 40s, the eggs that ovulate each month are of poorer quality than those from her 20s. It is harder to get pregnant when the eggs are poorer in quality.
Ovarian reserve is the number and quality of eggs in your ovaries and how well the ovarian follicles respond to hormones in your body. As you approach menopause, your ovaries don't respond as well to your hormones, and in time they may not release an egg each month. A reduced ovarian reserve is natural as a woman ages, but young women might have reduced ovarian reserves due to smoking, a prior surgery on their ovaries, or a family history of early menopause. Also, as a woman and her eggs age, if she becomes pregnant, there is a greater chance of having genetic problems, such as having a baby with Down Syndrome. Embryos formed from eggs in older women also are less likely to fully develop, a main reason for miscarriage (early pregnancy loss).
Couples also can have fertility problems because of health problems, in either the woman or the man. Common problems with a woman's reproductive organs, like uterine fibroids, endometriosis, and pelvic inflammatory disease can worsen with age and also affect fertility. These conditions might cause the fallopian tubes to be blocked, so the egg can't travel through the tubes into the uterus.
Some people also have diseases or conditions that affect their hormone levels, which can cause infertility in women and impotence and infertility in men. Polycystic Ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is one such hormonal condition that affects many women, and is the most common cause of anovulation, or when a woman rarely or never ovulates. Another hormonal condition that is a common cause of infertility is when a woman has a luteal phase defect (LPD). A luteal phase is the time in the menstrual cycle between ovulation and the start of the next menstrual period. LPD is a failure of the uterine lining to be fully prepared for a fertilized egg to implant there. This happens either because a woman's body is not producing enough progesterone, or the uterine lining isn't responding to progesterone levels at some point in the menstrual cycle. Since pregnancy depends on a fertilized egg implanting in the uterine lining, LPD can interfere with a woman getting pregnant and with carrying a pregnancy successfully.
Certain lifestyle choices also can have a negative effect on a woman's fertility, such as smoking, alcohol use, weighing much more or much less than an ideal body weight, a lot of strenuous exercise, and having an eating disorder.
Unlike women, some men remain fertile into their 60s and 70s. But as men age, they might begin to have problems with the shape and movement of their sperm, and have a slightly higher risk of sperm gene defects. They also might produce no sperm, or too few sperm. Lifestyle choices also can affect the number and quality of a man's sperm. Alcohol and drugs can temporarily reduce sperm quality. And researchers are looking at whether environmental toxins, such as pesticides and lead, also may be to blame for some cases of infertility. Men also can have health problems that affect their sexual and reproductive function. These can include sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), diabetes, surgery on the prostate gland, or a severe testicle injury or problem.
If you or your partner has a problem with sexual function or libido, don't delay seeing your doctor for help.
You should talk to your doctor about your fertility if you:
*are under age 35 and, after a year of frequent sex without birth control, you are having problems getting pregnant, or
* are age 35 or over and, after six months of frequent sex without birth control, you are having problems getting pregnant, or
* believe you or your partner might have fertility problems in the future (even before you begin trying to get pregnant).
Your doctor can refer you to a fertility specialist, a doctor who focuses in treating infertility. This doctor can recommend treatments such as drugs, surgery, or assisted reproductive technology. Don't delay seeing your doctor because age also affects the success rates of these treatments.
There are many ways to treat infertility. They include:
The first step to treat infertility is to see a doctor for a fertility evaluation. He or she will test both the woman and the man, to find out where the problem is. Testing on the man focuses on the number and health of his sperm. The lab will look at a sample of his sperm under a microscope to check sperm number, shape, and movement. Blood tests also can be done to check hormone levels. More tests might be needed to look for infection, or problems with hormones. These tests can include:
*an x-ray (to look at his reproductive organs)
*a mucus penetrance test (to see if sperm can swim through mucus)
*a hamster-egg penetrance assay (to see if sperm can go through hamster egg cells, somewhat showing their power to fertilize human eggs)
Testing for the woman first looks at whether she is ovulating each month. This can be done by having her chart changes in her morning body temperature, by using an FDA-approved home ovulation test kit (which she can buy at a drug store), or by looking at her cervical mucus, which changes throughout her menstrual cycle. Ovulation also can be checked in her doctor's office with an ultrasound test of the ovaries, or simple blood tests that check hormone levels, like the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) test. FSH is produced by the pituitary gland. In women, it helps control the menstrual cycle and the production of eggs by the ovaries. The amount of FSH varies throughout the menstrual cycle and is highest just before an egg is released. The amounts of FSH and other hormones (luteinizing hormone, estrogen, and progesterone) are measured in both a man and a woman to determine why the couple cannot achieve pregnancy. If the woman is ovulating, more testing will need to be done. These tests can include:
* an hysterosalpingogram (an x-ray to check if the fallopian tubes are open and to show the shape of the uterus)
* a laparoscopy (an exam of the tubes and other female organs for disease)
* an endometrial biopsy (an exam of a small shred of the uterine lining to see if monthly changes in it are normal)
Other tests can be done to show whether the sperm and mucus are interacting in the right way, or if the man or woman is forming antibodies that are attacking the sperm and stopping them from getting to the egg.
Drugs and Surgery
Different treatments for infertility are recommended depending on what the problem is. About 90 percent of cases are treated with drugs or surgery. Various fertility drugs may be used for women with ovulation problems. It is important to talk with your doctor about the drug to be used. You should understand the drug's benefits and side effects. Depending on the type of fertility drug and the dosage of the drug used, multiple births (such as twins) can occur in some women. If needed, surgery can be done to repair damage to a woman's ovaries, fallopian tubes, or uterus. Sometimes a man has an infertility problem that can be corrected by surgery.
Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART)
Assisted reproductive technology (ART) uses special methods to help infertile couples, and involves handling both the woman's eggs and the man's sperm. Success rates vary and depend on many factors. But ART has made it possible for many couples to have children that otherwise would not have been conceived. ART can be expensive and time-consuming. Many health insurance companies do not provide coverage for infertility or provide only limited coverage. Check your health insurance contract carefully to learn about what is covered. Also, some states have laws for infertility insurance coverage. Some of these include Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Texas, and West Virginia.
In vitro fertilization (IVF) is a type of ART that is often used when a woman's fallopian tubes are blocked or when a man has low sperm counts. A drug is used to stimulate the ovaries to produce multiple eggs. Once mature, the eggs are removed and placed in a culture dish with the man's sperm for fertilization. After about 40 hours, the eggs are examined to see if they have become fertilized by the sperm and are dividing into cells. These fertilized eggs (embryos) are then placed in the woman's uterus, thus bypassing the fallopian tubes. Gamete intrafallopian transfer (GIFT) is similar to IVF, but used when the woman has at least one normal fallopian tube. Three to five eggs are placed in the fallopian tube, along with the man's sperm, for fertilization inside the woman's body. Zygote intrafallopian transfer (ZIFT), also called tubal embryo transfer, combines IVF and GIFT. The eggs retrieved from the woman's ovaries are fertilized in the lab and placed in the fallopian tubes rather than the uterus.
ART sometimes involves the use of donor eggs (eggs from another woman) or previously frozen embryos. Donor eggs may be used if a woman has impaired ovaries or has a genetic disease that could be passed on to her baby. And if a woman does not have any eggs, or her eggs are not of a good enough quality to produce a pregnancy, she and her partner might want to consider surrogacy. A surrogate is a woman who agrees to become pregnant using the man's sperm and her own egg. The child will be genetically related to the surrogate and the male partner, but the surrogate will give the baby to the couple at birth.
A gestational carrier might be an option for women who do not have a uterus, from having had a hysterectomy, but still have their ovaries, or for women who shouldn't become pregnant because of a serious health problem. In this case, the woman's eggs are fertilized by the man's sperm and the embryo is placed inside the carrier's uterus. In this case, the carrier will not be related to the baby, and will give the baby to the parents at birth.
Counseling and Support Groups
If you've been having problems getting pregnant, you know how frustrating it can feel. Not being able to get pregnant can be one of the most stressful experiences a couple has. Both counseling and support groups can help you and your partner talk about your feelings, and to help you meet other couples like you in the same situation. You will learn that anger, grief, blame, guilt, and depression are all normal. Couples do survive infertility, and can become closer and stronger in the process. Ask your doctor for the names of counselors or therapists with an interest in fertility.
Source: National Women’s Health Information Center, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.womenshealth.gov