There are many myths and misunderstandings surrounding male fertility issues. Here we answer some of the most commonly asked questions.
Infertility in couples can cause frustration and disappointment. Infertility is officially defined as the failure to achieve pregnancy after trying for a baby for at least a year. Primary infertility, which means failure to achieve pregnancy for the first time, is very common, affecting roughly 15% of couples1.
For around 40% of couples having difficulty conceiving, male fertility problems are thought to be a factor. Male infertility occurs for a number of reasons, although is most often due to low sperm count, also known as oligozoospermia. In around 20% of couples having a hard time getting pregnant, a low sperm count or poor sperm quality is the cause2.
With many myths and misunderstandings about male fertility problems, it’s only natural that people have lots of questions on the subject. Here we answer some of the most common.
Why do male fertility problems occur?
While there are a number of reasons why men encounter fertility issues, sperm disorders are the most common cause. In addition to low sperm count, which affects up to a fifth of young men, sperm disorders include poor sperm mobility and shape. Sperm that don’t move quickly enough will die before they reach the egg, while an abnormally formed sperm may struggle to achieve fertilisation. However, it’s important to point out that all men produce certain levels of abnormal sperm; only when these levels become high is there a risk3.
Other causes of male infertility include obstructive problems, such as blockage in the sperm-carrying tubes caused by surgery, trauma, infection or congenital issues. Some men also experience problems following testicular injury or disease, which can permanently damage the sperm-producing mechanism through reduced blood supply.
Genetic disorders are another cause, with chromosomal complications – which occur in 2-20% of infertile men – affecting the development of the testicles or disrupting sperm production. A condition known as varicocele, which is a dilation of the testicular veins in the spermatic cord, also affects between 30-40% of infertile men.
Do certain medical conditions increase the risk of infertility?
Yes, research confirms that conditions such as mumps, kidney disease and hormonal problems have links to male infertility. A bad case of flu can also temporarily affect sperm production and quality, while diabetes, stroke, multiple sclerosis and high blood pressure can lead to problems relating to erections and ejaculation.
What about medical and recreational drugs?
Drug use can certainly impact male fertility. In medicine, cancer radiation treatment and chemotherapy can have a major effect, as can certain ulcer drugs, antifungal medication and anabolic steroids4.
In terms of recreational drugs, alcohol, cocaine and marijuana are all proven to reduce male fertility, while there’s also evidence to suggest that men who smoke are at risk of lowering their sperm count. Furthermore, exposure to ambient environmental toxins, industrial pollutants and chemicals, such as pesticides and dioxins, can have a similarly negative impact.
So is male fertility in decline?
While certain research claims that sperm counts are plummeting and male fertility is on the wane, evidence in this area is inconclusive. We are certainly much more exposed to external environmental pollutants now than we were last century. However, no definitive studies have yet said for sure that men are less fertile today than they were in the past5.
Is it true what they say about cycling shorts and non-stick frying pans?
Unsubstantiated claims about the causes of male infertility, often snapped up by the press, can lead to widespread myths and misunderstandings – none of which are helpful. For example, recent studies suggesting the chemicals used in sunscreen and non-stick frying pans are linked to male infertility triggered a number of inaccurate scare stories6.
Similarly, the cycling revolution currently underway in the UK has led to speculation that the increased numbers of men wearing tight cycling shorts and riding for miles on hard narrow saddles is causing ‘constriction issues’, leading to infertility and erectile dysfunction. However, much to the relief of MAMILS (middle-aged men in Lycra) up and down the country, such associations have been laid to rest by a study conducted by University College London7.
How are fertility issues diagnosed and what treatment is available?
Problems linked to complications such as hernia, varicocele or infections can be identified by physical inspection. Semen samples can be assessed to determine sperm health and quality, while genetic screening, biopsies and blood screening can also be used to locate underlying issues.
In terms of treatment options, patients can undergo surgery to correct organ damage or abnormalities, or receive evidence-based treatments to enhance fertility when no specific problem has been identified. Medication can also be used to treat certain dysfunctions and imbalances, while there a host of reproductive technologies and methods (lab fertilisation, third-party sperm or egg donations) available to couples.
Finally, men of a certain age can improve the health of their sperm through a controlled diet. Foods high in antioxidants and vitamins C and E, for example, serve to strengthen sperm DNA strands and boost the chances of improved male fertility.
If you’re worried about your own fertility consider booking in for a fertility investigation to determine the causes of any fertility problems. You can then be referred for treatment if appropriate. BMI Healthcare offer a number of other fertility treatments and services including IVF, egg donation, sperm donation and fertility screening.
To find out more call us on 0808 101 0337 or make an online enquiry.