SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- Around 30% of fertility problems originate in the man.
- Male fertility problems include poor quality sperm, low sperm count or blockages in the tubes of the reproductive system.
- Treatment options for poor sperm quality include inseminating the man’s partner with a concentrated sample of the man’s semen and intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI).
- In ICSI the woman’s eggs are retrieved and a single sperm is injected into each egg using a microscopic needle.
New life begins when an egg is fertilised by sperm . Around 20 million sperm per millilitre (ml) need to be present in the ejaculate, with enough mobility and strength to swim the journey to the fallopian tube where takes place.
The monthly chance of a young fertile couple conceiving is approximately 25%. If there is no pregnancy after 12 months of trying (6 months if the woman is over the age of 35) there may be a fertility problem.
Around one third of infertility originate in the one third in the man and in one third of couples both partners have a fertility problem. No cause is found in around one in 10 couples investigated for infertility. This is called ‘unexplained’ or ‘idiopathic’ infertility.
Causes of male infertility
The major causes of male infertility are:
Obstructions causing infertility in men
Sperm are made in the testicles, then they spend 2 to 10 days passing through a series of small tubes called the epididymis where they mature and exit into a larger tube called the vas deferens. The vas deferens empties the sperm into the ejaculatory duct, where they are mixed with seminal fluid from the seminal vesicles and the prostate gland.
During ejaculation, muscular contractions force the semen into the urethra and out of the penis. Blockages or absences of tubes (including the vas deferens) are the cause of around one in 3 cases of male infertility. Blockages or absences of tubes may be congenital (present since birth) or due to or injury.
Problems with sperm causing infertility in men
Problems with sperm numbers or quality are thought to be caused by genetic factors. Tiny fragments of the male chromosome may be missing in some men with sperm problems. This may cause:
- Absent sperm (azoospermia) – the semen doesn’t contain any sperm. This may be caused by a blockage of the tubes or the testicles not producing sperm.
- Low sperm count (oligospermia) – the ejaculate has insufficient sperm to bring about conception.
- Abnormal shape – a healthy sperm is shaped like a streamlined tadpole. Abnormally shaped sperm may have problems penetrating the surface of the woman’s egg.
- Poor motility – a healthy sperm has a lashing tail which helps it to swim through the woman’s reproductive system. Sperm with poor motility may swim feebly or not at all.
Functional problems causing infertility in men
- Functional problems that can cause or contribute to male infertility include:
- – the inability to get or maintain an erection sufficient for sexual intercourse.
- Ejaculation problems – retrograde (when semen enters the bladder instead of emerging through the penis) and .
- Problems with the testicles – caused by injury, infection or .
- – side effects of the surgical removal of the prostate gland, including infertility, impotence and .
- Certain disorders – , and other disorders can cause erection and ejaculation difficulties.
- Antibodies – the man’s immune system makes antibodies that hinder the activity of sperm, such as reducing the sperm’s ability to latch onto his partner’s egg.
Hormonal problems causing infertility in men
The levels of male sex hormones are regulated by a series of glands and their hormones. The pituitary gland in the brain influences hormone production in the testicles under the guidance of the hypothalamus. A relatively uncommon cause of male infertility is the failure to make enough of the hormone gonadotrophin.
Diagnosis of male infertility
Tests for both the man and his partner are done in an infertility investigation. Diagnosing male infertility may involve:
- Physical examination – including medical history.
- Semen analysis – a sample of the man’s semen is investigated in the laboratory and checked for abnormalities and the presence of antibodies.
- – to assess hormone levels.
- Testicular – a fine needle and microscope are used to check the network of tubes within the testicles to see if they contain any sperm.
- – to take pictures of the reproductive organs, such as the prostate gland.
Prevention of male infertility
To help improve your fertility, avoid:
- heat stress from tight-fitting underwear
- (taken for body-building or sporting purposes).
Treatment for male infertility
No treatments can improve the quality of a man’s sperm. However, various techniques can increase the odds of conception using the existing sperm quality.
The reproductive technologies available to infertile men include:
- hormone therapy
- artificial insemination
- in-vitro fertilisation (IVF)
- intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI)
Surgery for male infertility
If surgery doesn't work, the man may undergo a surgical procedure called percutaneous epididymal sperm aspiration (PESA). Under local anaesthetic, a slender needle is inserted into the epididymis. Sperm are removed and either used immediately for ICSI or frozen for later use.
Hormone therapy for male infertility
The pituitary gland in the brain releases hormones called gonadotropins, which stimulate the testicles to produce sperm. In a small number of cases, male infertility is caused by insufficient levels of these gonadotropins. Taking these hormones as medication may boost sperm production.
Artificial insemination for male infertility
The man's semen is collected, washed and concentrated, then introduced into his partner's uterus through the cervix. This option may be chosen when:
- The concentration of sperm in the man’s semen is low.
- The man has functional problems, such as impotence.
- The man's seminal fluid contains antibodies against his sperm.
- The woman’s cervical mucus interferes with sperm transport.
In-vitro fertilisation (IVF) for male infertility
In In-vitro fertilisation (IVF) sperm is collected from the man and is placed in a special incubator. The woman’s ovaries are stimulated with hormone injections and when the eggs are mature they are retrieved in an ultrasound-guided procedure.
The eggs are mixed with the sperm and placed in a special incubator. The fertilised eggs develop into embryos, which are then implanted into the woman's uterus through a thin tube inserted through the cervix.
Intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) for male infertility
Sometimes, semen contains too few (or too few structurally normal) sperm to make fertilisation possible through IVF. Intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) can be used in these cases.
In ICSI each egg is injected with a single sperm using a microscopic needle. The fertilised eggs develop into embryos that are transferred into the uterus at the appropriate time.