What is infertility?

Infertility is defined by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) as a disease of the reproductive system that impairs the body's ability to perform the basic function of reproduction. Although conceiving a child may seem to be simple and natural, the physiological process is quite complicated and depends on the proper function of many factors, including the following, as listed by the ASRM:

  • Production of healthy sperm by the man

  • Production of healthy eggs by the woman

  • Unblocked fallopian tubes that allow the sperm to reach the egg

  • The sperm's ability to fertilize the egg

  • The ability of the fertilized egg to become implanted in the uterus

  • Adequate embryo quality

Who is affected by infertility?

The average chance to conceive for a normally fertile, healthy, young couple having regular, unprotected intercourse is approximately 20 percent during each menstrual cycle. In most couples, conception occurs within about 12 months. However, infertility affects about 10 percent of couples of childbearing age. Infertility is not just a woman's concern. ASRM data indicate that about one-third of infertility can be attributed to male alone factors and about one-third to female alone factors. About one-third of infertile couples have more than one cause or factor related to their inability to conceive. About 20 percent have no identifiable cause for their infertility after medical investigation.

What are the risk factors for men regarding infertility?

The following is a list of risk factors related to male infertility (also called male factor infertility):

  • History of prostatitis or genital infection

  • Testicular trauma or torsion

  • History of precocious puberty (puberty occurring at a young age) or delayed puberty (puberty occurring at an older age)

  • Exposure to toxic substances or hazards on the job, such as lead, cadmium, mercury, ethylene oxide, vinyl chloride, radioactivity, and x-rays

  • Cigarette or marijuana smoking

  • Heavy alcohol consumption

  • Exposure of the genitals to high temperatures

  • Hernia repair

  • Undescended testicles

  • Prescription drugs for ulcers or psoriasis

  • DES taken by mother during pregnancy

  • Mumps after puberty

What causes male factor infertility?

The main causes of male infertility can be divided into the following categories:

  • Sperm disorders. Problems with the production and maturation of sperm are the most common causes of male infertility. Sperm may be immature, abnormally shaped, or unable to move properly. Or, normal sperm may be produced in abnormally low numbers (oligospermia) or seemingly not at all (azoospermia). This problem may be caused by many different conditions, including the following:

    • Infectious diseases or inflammatory conditions such as the mumps virus

    • Endocrine or hormonal disorders such as Kallmann syndrome (an absence of or decrease in the function of the male testes) or a pituitary problem

    • Immunological disorders in which some men produce antibodies to their own sperm

    • Environmental and lifestyle factors

    • Genetic diseases, most of which are either directly or indirectly associated with sperm abnormalities:

      • Cystic fibrosis. An inherited condition that typically involves the lungs and pancreas, but that can present also as a cause of infertility with or without mild sinus problems. Most men who have cystic fibrosis have obstructive azoospermia, because they were born without a vas deferens. This results in male infertility. 

      • Noonan syndrome. An inherited condition which can occur in either males or females. In males, this syndrome can cause abnormal gonadal (testicular) function.

      • Myotonic dystrophy. An inherited condition with progressive multi-system involvement, resulting in infertility (underdeveloped testes and abnormal sperm production) in some cases.

      • Hemochromatosis. An inherited condition affecting iron storage. Eighty percent of men with hemochromatosis have testicular dysfunction.

      • Sickle cell disease. An inherited condition affecting the normal production of hemoglobin.

      • Sex reversal syndrome. A male who has the sex chromosomes of a genetic female (XX, instead of XY), resulting in azoospermia and other characteristics.

      • Androgen receptor gene mutations. An inherited condition in which a man is genetically male (46,XY), but has infertility due to a defect in receptors for testosterone.

      • Chromosomal abnormalities. Men with an extra X sex chromosome, known as Klinefelter syndrome, often do not produce sperm or produce very low quantities of sperm.

      • Chromosome rearrangements. In some persons, there are the usual number of chromosomes (46) in the nucleus (center) of cells, but rearrangements in the chromosome material, where a piece of a chromosome has exchanged places with another, has taken place. Men with either azoospermia or oligospermia have a higher frequency of chromosome rearrangements than is found in the general population.

      • Deletions in the Y chromosome. In some persons, there are the usual number of chromosomes (46) in the body cells, but small sections of the Y chromosome are missing or deleted. A small percentage of men with either azoospermia or oligospermia have deletions in the Y chromosome.

        It is important to understand that men who have genetic problems which cause their infertility, such as a deletion in the Y chromosome, can pass this problem to their sons, who would also have infertility, if they elect to use their own sperm in achieving a pregnancy.

    • Anatomical abnormalities. Obstructions of the genital tract can cause infertility by partially or totally blocking the flow of seminal fluid. Some of these abnormalities may be of congenital (present at birth) origin or the result of a genetic defect. Others could have occurred due to infection or inflammation of the urogenital tract, surgery that left scar tissue in the genital tract, or the presence of varicose veins in the scrotum (scrotal varicoceles).

    • Immotile cilia syndrome. In this condition, the sperm count is normal but the spermatozoa are non-motile, such as in Kartagener's syndrome, an inherited disorder.

    • Mitochondrial deletions. Mitochondria are structures in the cell responsible for energy production. There is actually a set of genes in the mitochondria, separate from the normal chromosome set contained in the nucleus. Recently, it has been discovered that these genes, when altered or deleted, can affect a person's health and/or fertility.

    • Liver disease, renal disease, or treatment for seizure disorders

    • Other factors. Other factors may arise from the defective delivery of sperm into the female genital tract, which could be caused by impotence or premature ejaculation.

Your Guide to Infertility

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