What Causes Male Infertility?

When you want to have a baby, then learn you’re infertile, it doesn’t help to know you’re not alone -- but the fact is, you’re not. Infertility affects one in six couples. In about half of all cases, the man’s infertility contributes to the couple’s inability to get pregnant.

Male infertility may be common, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have your own biological child. Today’s advanced technology makes it possible for 90% of all infertile men to conceive a child, even if it comes down to an in vitro procedure.

It’s good to know that solutions are available, but it’s also important to know what causes the problem in the first place. Armed with the right information, you may be able to lower your risks and avoid facing the challenge of male infertility.

What increases the risk of male infertility?

Age is a well-known issue for women’s fertility, but it’s also a critical factor for men who want to have a baby. As men get older, testosterone levels go down and changes in testicular tissue, sperm production, and erectile function make it harder to conceive.

The father’s age is also associated with DNA damage in sperm and a higher risk for neurocognitive disorders in the baby, such as schizophrenia and autism. Male fertility starts to decline around age 40. By the time you’re 45, you face a five-fold increase in the time it takes to get pregnant.

Lifestyle factors also influence a man’s fertility. When you know those factors ahead of time, you have the opportunity to make changes. Common risk factors include:

Being overweight: reduces your sperm count and affects the molecular composition of sperm
Smoking: lowers your sperm count, diminishes sperm function and motility, and contributes to DNA damage in sperm
Environmental toxins: pesticides, heavy metals like lead, and bisphenol A (BPA) impair male reproductive function

Sperm are affected by inflammation and oxidative stress -- which is better known as cellular damage caused by free radicals. Oxidative stress lowers sperm production and affects overall sperm health, including their ability to reach and fertilize the egg. The good news is that taking antioxidant supplements often treats the problem.

You’re more likely to face fertility problems if you’ve taken testosterone, because testosterone replacement therapy can interfere with sperm production. In most men, the sperm count returns to normal when they stop taking testosterone, but it’s important to talk about your options if you need testosterone, yet want to preserve your fertility.

What are the primary causes of male infertility?

A physical issue may be to blame, such as healthy sperm not being ejaculated properly. You may have erectile dysfunction, a blocked ejaculatory duct, or seminal fluid that’s too thick for sperm to maneuver properly. But most of the time male infertility is due to a problem with sperm, such as:

Sperm count or maturity

Sometimes there just aren’t enough healthy sperm. You may not produce enough sperm.  Or you may have enough sperm, but they’re immature, so they don’t live long enough to fertilize an egg. Poor sperm motility, or an inability to move well enough to reach the egg, is a common cause of infertility, too.

Sperm shape

A sperm’s shape affects its ability to penetrate the egg. Common sperm abnormalities that undermine their quality include a very large head, an extremely small heat, a tapered head, and a curly tail.

Sperm DNA

Sometimes the DNA in the sperm is the problem. The DNA can be “fragmented,” or damaged. Sperm with damaged DNA may successfully fertilize an egg, but it increases the chance that the baby won’t develop normally, resulting in miscarriage and birth defects.  

What causes sperm to change in the first place?

DNA fragmentation in sperm most often develops from oxidative stress, which can stem from lots of things -- from toxins in the environment to smoking cigarettes. Oxidative stress and other problems with your sperm, such as low sperm count, can arise from any of the common risk factors.

Other things that cause problems with sperm might be infection, diabetes, thyroid disease, nutritional deficiencies, high testicular temperature, stress, and the use of alcohol or recreational drugs.

What treatments are available for male infertility?

Treatment for male infertility depends on the underlying cause, so you’ll undergo a thorough physical exam and get blood work to rule out underlying health problems. A semen analysis and a DNA fragmentation test are also performed to check your sperm and semen. Many other specialized tests are available to nail down the cause of your infertility.

If DNA fragmentation is diagnosed, treatment may include antibiotics, antioxidants, and lifestyle changes like quitting smoking and eating healthy, whole foods high in antioxidants. Other possible treatments might be hormone therapy to correct an imbalance or surgery to repair a defect or remove a blockage. Other options include:

In vitro fertilization

Sperm can be retrieved from tiny ducts in the epididymis, which consists of thin tubes that carry sperm from the testes to the vas deferens. Sperm mature while they’re in the epididymis, so after they’re removed, they can be frozen and used later to fertilize an egg.

Intracytoplasmic sperm injection

Reproductive technology has advanced to the point where a single sperm can be retrieved and physically injected into an egg. This procedure, intracytoplasmic sperm injection, makes it possible for most infertile men to conceive their own child.

If you’ve tried to have a baby for six months to a year without success, please don’t wait to contact the team at California Reproductive Center in Encino, California. They have extensive experience treating male infertility, and the sooner you seek help, the better your chances are of having a healthy baby.

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