This is diagnosed when a couple has not achieved a pregnancy after one year of regular unprotected sexual intercourse. Around 15–20 per cent of couples have diﬃculties in conceiving; in half of these cases the male partner is infertile, while the woman is infertile also in half; but in one-third of infertile couples both partners are aﬀected. Couples should be investigated together as eﬃciently and quickly as possible to decrease the distress which is invariably associated with the diagnosis of infertility. In about 10–15 per cent of women suﬀering from infertility, ovulation is disturbed. Mostly they will have either irregular periods or no periods at all (see MENSTRUATION).
Checking a hormone proﬁle in the woman’s blood will help in the diagnosis of ovulatory disorders like polycystic ovaries, an early menopause, anorexia or other endocrine illnesses. Ovulation itself is best assessed by ultrasound scan at mid-cycle or by a blood hormone progesterone level in the second half of the cycle.
The FALLOPIAN TUBES may be damaged or blocked in 20–30 per cent of infertile women. This is usually caused by previous pelvic infection or ENDOMETRIOSIS, where menstrual blood is thought to ﬂow backwards through the fallopian tubes into the pelvis and seed with cells from the lining of the uterus in the pelvis. This process often leads to scarring of the pelvic tissues; 5–10 per cent of infertility is associated with endometriosis.
To assess the Fallopian tubes adequately a procedure called LAPAROSCOPY is performed. An ENDOSCOPE is inserted through the umbilicus and at the same time a dye is pushed through the tubes to assess their patency. The procedure is performed under a general anaesthetic.
In a few cases the mucus around the cervix may be hostile to the partner’s sperm and therefore prevent fertilisation.
Defective production is responsible for up to a quarter of infertility. It may result from the failure of the testes (see TESTICLE) to descend in early life, from infections of the testes or previous surgery for testicular torsion. The semen is analysed to assess the numbers of sperm and their motility and to check for abnormal forms.
In a few cases the genetic make-up of one partner does not allow the couple ever to achieve a pregnancy naturally.
In about 25 per cent of couples no obvious cause can be found for their infertility.
Treatment Ovulation may be induced with drugs.
In some cases damaged Fallopian tubes may be repaired by tubal surgery. If the tubes are destroyed beyond repair a pregnancy may be achieved with in vitro fertilisation (IVF) – see under ASSISTED CONCEPTION.
Endometriosis may be treated either with drugs or laser therapy, and pregnancy rates after both forms of treatment are between 40–50 per cent, depending on the severity of the disease.
Few options exist for treating male-factor infertility. These are artiﬁcial insemination by husband or donor and more recently in vitro fertilisation. Drug treatment and surgical repair of VARICOCELE have disappointing results.
Following investigations, between 30 and 40 per cent of infertile couples will achieve a pregnancy usually within two years.
Some infertile men cannot repair any errors in the DNA in their sperm, and it has been found that the same DNA repair problem occurs in malignant cells of some patients with cancer. It is possible that these men’s infertility might be nature’s way of stopping the propagation of genetic defects. With the assisted reproduction technique called intracytoplasmic sperm injection, some men with defective sperm can fertilise an ovum. If a man with such DNA defects fathers a child via this technique, that child could be sterile and might be at increased risk of developing cancer. (See ARTIFICIAL INSEMINATION; ASSISTED CONCEPTION.)