Infertility is a broad term used to describe the difficulty of becoming or remaining pregnant. When a couple has had unprotected, regular sexual intercourse for six months to a year without producing a viable pregnancy, they are considered to have infertility issues. Infertility symptoms can present in both women and men, and can be due to an issue with one partner, both partners, or other external factors.
Infertility occurs when there’s a breakdown in one of the steps it takes to become pregnant. This can happen anywhere during the process, including:
- During the release of the egg (ovulation)
- When the sperm meets egg (fertilization)
- As the fertilized egg travels through fallopian tube
- As the fertilized egg reaches uterus and attaches to the uterine wall (implantation)
Infertility in Women
In about one-third of infertility cases, issues with the female partner contribute to the lack of pregnancy. These issues might include problems with ovulation, physical abnormalities in the female reproductive system, damage/blockage in the fallopian tubes, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, adhesions in the pelvic organs, cancer, or early menopause.
Infertility in Men
It’s a common misconception that infertility is a female-only issue. Men can also have issues that impact the ability of getting pregnant, and about one-third of infertility cases can be traced back a problem with the male partner. Men may have issues with sperm production or problems with ejaculation, preventing the fertilization of the egg.
General Infertility Risk Factors
The remaining third of infertility cases are attributed to both the male and female partners (or to no obvious cause). There are a number of factors that can impact fertility in both men and women, including:
- Lifestyle (alcohol, smoking, drug use)
- Weight, both being overweight or underweight
- Extreme emotional distress
- Environmental toxins
- Cancer treatment such as radiation or chemotherapy
- Medications or treatment for other conditions
Treatment for infertility depends on the suspected cause, but typically some combination of drugs, surgery, and behavioral modifications can improve a couple’s chances of becoming pregnant.
Furthermore, there are a number of ways that doctors can “artificially” produce a pregnancy, either through intrauterine insemination or though methods of assisted reproductive technology (ART). Examples of ART methods include in vitro fertilization and intracytoplasmic sperm injection, among others.
In vitro fertilization (IVF)
In vitro fertilization (IVF) is a fertility treatment method that fertilizes an egg outside of the woman’s body. This process usually begins with a doctor prescribing the female patient certain hormones or drugs that will help her produce multiple eggs; these eggs are then removed and mixed with the male partner’s sperm in a laboratory.
After these eggs are fertilized, the newly created embryos remain in the lab for a few days to grow. Then, doctors will transfer one or more of these embryos back into the woman’s uterus. A simple pregnancy test conducted a few weeks later will determine if the IVF treatment was successful and a viable pregnancy was produced.