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»What is Infertility?

Infertility, whether male or female, can be defined as 'the inability of a couple to achieve conception or to bring a pregnancy to term after a year or more of regular, unprotected intercourse'.

» What are major causes of Infertility ?

It is estimated that one in six couples face difficulties in conceiving. If you've had unprotected sex for more than 12 months (or, if you're over 35, six months) and are still not pregnant, you may begin to wonder if you are infertile.

If you decide to seek medical help, the best thing to do is see your doctor. Many infertility problems can be pinpointed and the vast majority treated.

The chart below outlines the most common causes, typical treatments and the percentages of couples who go on to become pregnant. Percentages are variable since multiple problems can exist in a couple. Read more about infertility treatments in our treatment chart.




Possible symptoms

Possible solutions

Success rates

FEMALE -- accounts for 35-40 per cent of all fertility problems


This condition, in which endometrial tissue (the uterine lining that sheds with each monthly period) grows outside the uterus, is a major cause of infertility in women.

Painful menstrual periods, irregular or heavy bleeding and possibly, repeated miscarriages.

Laparoscopic surgery to remove abnormal tissue or unblock tubes and assisted conception treatments.

Surgery: 40-60 per cent conceives within 18 months after surgery. IVF: usual expected success rates

Ovulation problems

Any condition (usually hormonal) that prevents the release of a mature egg from an ovary.

Absent or infrequent periods and excessively heavy or light bleeding.

Ovulation-stimulating drugs such as clomiphene, follicle-stimulating hormones, human chorionic gonadotrophin (HCG) and in vitro fertilisation (IVF) using these drugs.

70 per cent ovulate and of those, 20-60 per cent get pregnant.

Poor egg quality

Eggs that become damaged or develop chromosomal abnormalities cannot sustain a pregnancy. This problem is usually age-related -- egg quality declines significantly in the late 30s and early 40s.


Egg donation or surrogacy.

43 per cent of women who have a fertilised donor egg implanted become pregnant.

Polycystic ovary

Patients whose ovaries contain many small cysts have hormone imbalances and do not ovulate regularly.

Irregular menstrual periods, excessive hair growth, acne and weight gain.

Ovulation-stimulating drugs such as clomiphene, follicle-stimulating hormones, and IVF.

70 per cent who take fertility drugs ovulate and of those, half go on to conceive within six to nine months. Unfortunately, one in five of those pregnancies miscarries.

Female tube

Blocked or damaged fallopian tubes prevent eggs from getting to the uterus and sperm from getting to the egg. Leading causes include pelvic inflammatory disease, sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia, and previous sterilisation surgery.


Laparoscopic surgery to open tubes, if possible (small area of blockage). If surgery fails, in vitro fertilisation is an option.

Conception rates vary widely -- from a low of 10 per cent to a high of 70 per cent -- depending on the severity of the blockage and the amount of scar tissue that develops after surgery. IVF: usual success rates.

MALE -- accounts for 35-40 per cent of all fertility problems

Male tube blockages

Any obstructions in the vas deferens or epididymis (the tubes that transport fertile sperm). Varicoceles (varicose veins) in the testicles are the most common cause of male tube blockages. Sexually transmitted diseases, such as chlamydia or gonorrhoea, are also linked to tube blockage problems.


Surgery to repair the varicoceles or other obstruction.

About 40 per cent are able to impregnate their partner within a year of surgery, most within six to nine months.

Sperm problems

Low or no sperm counts, poor sperm motility (the ability to move), and abnormally-shaped sperm can all cause infertility.


Fertility drugs may boost sperm production. Other options include artificial insemination with donor sperm and injecting sperm directly into the egg (intracytoplasmic sperm injection).

Fertility drugs: About 25 per cent are able to impregnate a partner. Artificial insemination: 5-20 per cent of women become pregnant per cycle. Sperm injection: About 15 per cent of women get pregnant per attempt.

Sperm allergy

Fewer than 10 per cent of infertile women and men have immune reactions to sperm, which cause them to produce antibodies that kill sperm cells. In men, this is most common after a vasectomy. This diagnosis is controversial: Click here to learn more.


Sperm washing and intrauterine insemination, assisted conception treatments. Immunosuppressive drugs, such as cortisone and prednisone, are sometimes used but many doctors don't recommend them.

Success rates of 20-40 per cent per cycle have been reported for all these treatments, but these figures are considered controversial.

Unexplained and combination -- accounts for 20-35 per cent of all fertility problems

Unexplained infertility

This catch-all term is used when doctors can't find a cause for infertility after a full series of tests and assessments. Some experts think being significantly over- or underweight, exercising excessively and even environmental toxins may be contributing factors but no direct links have been confirmed.


Beyond timed intercourse, there is no specific treatment. Some couples try fertility drugs and assisted conception procedures such as in vitro fertilisation, which have usual success rates. Others decide not to have children.

How long the couple has been infertile is important. Couples with unexplained infertility who have been trying for less than five years have about a 15-30 per cent chance of becoming pregnant in a given year. After five years, fewer than 10 per cent become pregnant without treatment.

Combination infertility

The term used to describe couples who have both male and female infertility problems, or when one partner has more than one fertility problem.

Symptoms vary, depending on causes.

Once all infertility causes are determined, appropriate treatments follow.

Rates vary, depending on infertility causes.

» What is the incidence of infertility worldwide?

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that approximately 8-10% of couples experience some form of infertility problem. On a worldwide scale, this means that 50-80 million people suffer from infertility. However, the incidence of infertility may vary from region to region. In France, 18% of couples of childbearing age said that they had difficulties in conceiving.

» My husband and I have an active sex life, we are both healthy, and my periods are regular. Why are we still unable to conceive?

You need to remember that it's not possible to determine the reason for your infertility until you undergo tests to find out if your husband's sperm count is normal; if your fallopian tubes and uterus are normal; and if you are producing eggs. Only after undergoing these tests will your doctor be able to tell you why you are not conceiving. While testing does cause considerable anxiety, it's far better to intelligently identify the problem so that we can look for the best solution.

» Is infertility exclusively a female problem?

No. The incidence of infertility in men and women is almost identical. Infertility is exclusively a female problem in 30-40% of the cases and exclusively a male problem in 10-30% of the cases. Problems common to both partners are diagnosed in 15-30% of infertile couples. After thorough medical investigations, the causes of the fertility problem remain unexplained in only a minority of infertile couples (5-10%).

» How can I determine my fertile period?

Your fertile period is the time during which having sex could lead to a pregnancy. This is the 4-6 days prior to ovulation (release of a mature egg from the ovary). Women normally ovulate 14 days prior to the date of the next menstrual period.

» What are the most common causes of infertility?

The most common causes of female infertility are ovulatory disorders and anatomical abnormalities such as damaged fallopian tubes. Less frequent causes include, for example, endometriosis and hyperprolactinemia. Causes of male infertility can be divided into three main categories: Sperm production disorders affecting the quality and/or the quantity of sperm; anatomical obstructions; Other factors such immunological disorders. Approximately a third of all cases of male infertility can be attributed to immune or endocrine problems, as well as to a failure of the testes to respond to the hormonal stimulation triggering sperm production. However, in a great number of cases of male infertility due to inadequate spermatogenesis (sperm production) or sperm defects, the origin of the problem still remains unexplained.

» My gynecologist has done an internal examination and said I am normal. Do I still need to get tests done to determine why I am not conceiving?

A routine gynecological examination does not provide information about possible problems which can cause infertility, such as blocked fallopian tubes or ovulatory disorders. You need a systematic infertility workup.

» What is the general progression of infertility treatment?

A variety of procedures can be used to diagnose the cause of infertility in a couple; these range from simple blood tests to more complicated analytical methods. In any case, diagnosis is a crucial first step to determine the appropriate therapeutic path that should be followed. In addition to the cause itself, other factors, such as the age of the woman, or problems shared by both partners, might also influence the choice of treatment.

» Do painful periods cause infertility?

Painful periods do not affect fertility. In fact, for most patients, regular painful periods usually signal ovulatory cycles. However, progressively worsening pain during periods (especially when this is accompanied by pain during sex) may mean you have endometriosis.

» What treatment options do infertile couples have?

Several options are offered to couples depending on the type of infertility that has been diagnosed. The vast majority of female patients are successfully treated with the administration of drugs such as clomiphene citrate, cabergoline, metformin or gonadotropins. Surgery can also be a means to repair damage to the reproductive organs, such as those caused by endometriosis and infectious diseases. Treatment options for male infertility also include the administration of drugs, surgery and assisted reproductive technologies, such as intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI). Drug therapy and surgery have proved very successful for specific types of male infertility. However, in a great number of cases, the reason why men have fertility problems remains unexplained and the treatment methods applied are empirical. Some patients nevertheless require more complex medical intervention. Assisted reproductive technologies (ART) refer to several different methods designed to overcome barriers to natural fertilization such as anatomical problems (eg blocked fallopian tubes). One of these techniques, in-vitro fertilization (IVF), has now been practiced for more than 15 years. Overall, the estimated number of infertile patients currently treated by ART is around 20%.

» How successful is infertility treatment?

When talking of success rates for any type of infertility treatment, one should bear in mind that the average chance to conceive for a normally fertile couple having regular unprotected intercourse is around 25% during each menstrual cycle. It is estimated that 10% of normally fertile couples fail to conceive within their first year of attempt and 5% after two years. Comparable to normal fertility rates, effective treatments can be expected to have, on an average, up to a 25% success rate per cycle of treatment, and may therefore need to be repeated several times before a pregnancy is achieved. Simple ovulation induction to compensate for hormonal imbalances has a very high success rate; more than 80% of women suffering from such disorders are likely to conceive after several cycles of treatment with drugs such as clomiphene citrate or gonadotropins.

» What about success rates of IVF?

Overall, success rates for IVF have steadily improved over the last ten years. Birth rates for IVF vary according to the expertise of the centers practicing this technique. However, centers in Europe have reported pregnancy rates after one cycle of IVF equal or superior to 25%. In 1993, the French IVF registry (FIVNAT) reported a pregnancy rate of 25.4% per embryo transfer on a total of 23,025 oocytes retrieved. Based on such results, after three to four cycles of IVF, a woman under 40 whose partner does not have any fertility problems could reasonably expect to give birth. Again, in general, success rates may vary from one center to another, since they are influenced not only by the level of expertise of the medical team but also by the characteristics of the patients treated. A clinic treating a large number of women over 40 is likely to report lower success rates than a clinic having a majority of patients under 35.

» Are there particular health risks for women undergoing infertility treatment?

Along with their intended benefits, drugs used to treat infertility may on occasion cause side effects. In ovulation induction, close monitoring of follicular growth is crucial to ensuring successful treatment. Monitoring techniques (such as ultrasound scan and blood tests) and adequate use of treatment protocols help the physician to avoid ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS) and minimize the risk of multiple pregnancy. Current treatment protocols have been designed to reduce the risk of multiple births and OHSS.

» What is Ovarian Hyper Stimulation Syndrome (OHSS)?

Ovarian Hyper Stimulation Syndrome (OHSS) is a side-effect that can occur during infertility treatment with ovulation inducing drugs. Symptoms of this syndrome may include ovarian enlargement, accumulation of fluid in the abdomen and gastrointestinal disorders (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea). Severe cases of OHSS are however very rare (1-2% of cases).

» How do multiple births occur?

Multiple births occur more frequently after infertility treatment than in the normal population. About 80% of pregnancies achieved following simple ovulation induction with gonadotropins result in single births, the remaining 20% being multiple pregnancies, mostly twin pregnancies. New treatment regimens carefully adapted to the patient's response help to decrease the risk of a multiple pregnancy. After IVF, one pregnancy out of four is multiple (20% twin pregnancies and 3-4% triplets). In IVF centers, physicians now frequently choose to replace a maximum of three embryos after fertilization, to further reduce the chance of multiple births.

» What are the common local side effects?

Common local side effects experienced by patients who receive gonadotropins by intramuscular injection include skin redness, swelling and bruising. Pain and discomfort sometimes reported after intramuscular injections are now likely to be lessened with the availability of gonadotropins produced by recombinant DNA - or genetic engineering-techniques, which are administered by subcutaneous injection.

» Can ovulation induction increase the risk of ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is a rare disease; the chance of a young woman developing an ovarian malignancy during her lifetime is lower than 1.5%. A number of factors have been found to increase the risk of ovarian cancer, including genetic predisposition and dietary habits. Scientific studies carried out in the last few decades have demonstrated that infertility itself is a risk factor for ovarian cancer. There is evidence that each pregnancy reduces the risk of a woman contracting ovarian cancer (this risk could be reduced by more than 25% by a first pregnancy). No epidemiological study has ever established a causal link between ovulation promoting drugs and ovarian cancer. An extensive study on this issue, reporting on more than 2,600 women treated between 1964 and 1974 and followed for an average of twelve years, found no association between ovulation inducing drugs and ovarian cancer.

» What is Extra Uterine Pregnancy (EUP)?

When a pregnancy is not located in the uterus it is called an Extra Uterine Pregnancy (EUP) or ectopic pregnancy. The most common place for an EUP is the fallopian tube but sometimes the ectopic pregnancy is located elsewhere, such as in the cervix, the ovary or in the abdomen. EUP is a rare disease and occurs in 1% of all pregnancies. With IVF treatment the risk can increase. Risk factors for EUP are a history of infection of the tubes (salpingitis), chlamydia infection, Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID), former EUP, operation on the tubes or in the lower abdomen, endometriosis and appendicitis. The symptoms of ectopic pregnancy are often similar to those of a normal miscarriage and may include a positive pregnancy test together with or without vaginal bleeding and abdominal pain. Although it is not common, the possibility of EUP has to be considered in patients with the symptoms and one (or more) of the risk factors for EUP. Diagnosis is made by questioning the patient on the risk factors, physical examination, vaginal ultrasound and laboratory findings. Depending on the size and the location of the EUP, different treatments can be given. Mostly the ectopic pregnancy will be removed surgically but occasionally medical treatment or expectant treatment is offered when the pregnancy is very small and thorough control of the patient is possible.

» What is Egg Donation?

Women with no or not properly working ovaries can, in some cases, get pregnant through egg donation. In this procedure another woman will be the egg donor. This woman will have an IVF stimulation and ovum pick-up. After the ovum pick-up the collected eggs will be fertilized with sperm of the partner of the recipient woman ie donor acceptor. The embryos are then transferred into the uterus of the recipient. If a pregnancy occurs the recipient and her partner will have a child which is biologically only half their own.

» What is PCOS?

Poly Cystic Ovary Syndrome or PCOS is an ovulation disorder, which affects 4-6% of all women. Several factors contribute to the disease. At this moment researchers think that the cause of the disease is genetic. The major features of this syndrome are irregular or no menstruation, hirsutism and acne due to high levels of male hormones, obesity (40-50%), high insulin levels with risk of developing diabetes and large polycystic ovaries shown on ultrasound. Women with PCOS usually present at fertility clinics for counseling. To increase fecundity the treatment possibilities are mostly focused on regulation of the menstrual cycle. For this, several drugs are used (clomiphene citrate, metformin, gonadotropins) and weight loss is strongly advised. In many cases the cycle will be ovulatory and regulated by these treatments. Furthermore at this moment it is being investigated whether electrocoagulation of the large ovaries can give (long-term) regulation of the cycles.

» What is Embryo Reduction?

Assisted Reproductive Therapy (ART) has caused an increase in multiple pregnancies. This situation is especially seen in ovulation induction and Intra Uterine Insemination. In order to prevent the risk of severe premature birth and handicaps as well as risks for the mother, embryo reduction is sometimes performed. The number of embryos in the uterus is reduced and the remaining pregnancy has a better chance of normal development and delivery. Of course this is not an easy decision for either the patients or the doctor. With careful guidance of the patient during treatment and good counseling when the patient is at risk for a large multiple pregnancy, many triplets or higher order pregnancies may be avoided.

» What is Cryopreservation?

Cryopreservation means preserving in a frozen condition. The best known cryopreservation is of semen. This is mostly done in case of cancer of the testicles before treatment of the cancer. Furthermore cryopreserved semen is used in donor insemination. It is also possible to freeze fertilized eggs after IVF or ICSI. If more embryos are left after an IVF or ICSI procedure they can be frozen and transferred another time. In this way there is another chance of a pregnancy while only one IVF or ICSI cycle is performed. For human oocytes cryopreservation is much more difficult. Only in very few experiments this is done successfully. The attention of researchers now is on developing a way to freeze ovarian tissue and after thawing, to obtain the oocytes in it. This procedure is not yet fully refined but when it is it can offer great opportunities in the future.

» What are the causes of damaged fallopian tubes?

In the beginning In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) was developed for patients facing infertility due to damaged fallopian tubes. Later on the indications to perform IVF were broadened, for example, unexplained infertility and male infertility. Nowadays tubal damage still accounts for a large number of all IVF treatments. The main cause is abdominal infection. This is mostly due to sexually transmitted diseases (for example chlamydia or gonorrhea) but complicated appendicitis or Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) can also cause damaged tubes. Other causes are abdominal operations (gynecological operations, Cesarean section, sterilization or other) and internal diseases like Crohn's disease. Affected patients can have fertility problems and are at risk for having a pregnancy located in the tubes (ectopic or tubal pregnancy).

» What is Cystic Fibrosis and Male Infertility?

Men who have cystic fibrosis often have a congenital anomaly in the male genital tract. The vas deferens, the tube connecting the testicle and epididymis to the ejaculatory duct, is congenitally absent. This makes it impossible for the sperms to pass through the penis. Using testicular sperm aspiration, the urologist can obtain sufficient sperm to allow excellent success with IVF and ICSI (intra cytoplasmic sperm injection). Insufficient numbers of sperm are obtained to make intrauterine insemination an effective option. As cystic fibrosis is a recessive genetic disorder, abnormal gene contributions from both parents are necessary for this disorder to be present. Both copies of the gene are abnormal in men with CF. While persons carrying a single copy of an abnormal gene do not have this condition, when paired with a partner with CF, they have a 50% chance of CF in their offspring. This makes testing the female partner advisable. If the woman tests normal, the children will be carriers for an abnormal gene and although they will not likely have CF, it is advised that their spouses be checked for CF gene abnormalities.

» What is Endometriosis?

Tissue histologically identical to the endometrium (the inner lining of the uterine wall) outside the uterine cavity. Usually, endometriosis is confined to the pelvic and lower abdominal cavity; however, it has occasionally been reported in other areas as well. Endometriosis is one of the most common problems that gynecologists currently face. It is one of the most complex and least understood diseases in our field and, despite many theories, we still do not have a clear understanding of the cause or of its relationship to infertility. Since this disorder is primarily a human disease and rare in other animal species, accumulation of the facts has been slow. Although endometriosis has been considered a pathological or separate disease entity, it may not be a disease at all. It may actually be the clinical manifestation of a more basic underlying disorder, such as a basic chemical or physiological abnormality that affects the tubal motility or immune system which could be responsible for the initiation or progression of endometriosis in patients with retrograde menstrual flow. By the same token, endometriosis may not be the cause of infertility, but the result of it. Further technological developments may be necessary in order for us to fully understand this problem.

» What is Reproductive Surgery?

Reproductive surgery is a subspecialty that treats anatomical abnormalities interfering with normal reproductive function. Advanced reproductive surgery requires meticulous surgical technique for optimal results, including rapid patient recovery and avoiding the need for routine hospitalization. Reproductive surgeons treat tubal obstruction, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, scarring of the ovaries or other pelvic structures resulting from pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in the female, and varicocele and vas obstruction in the male as well as other abnormalities.

» What does Laparoscopy involve?

The laparoscope allows visual inspection of the pelvic organs through a very tiny incision. Abnormalities that lead to infertility can be treated surgically through additional small incisions to remove scar tissue, laser, coagulate, or excise endometriosis, and repair tubes blocked at the fimbrial end. Many types of female reproductive surgery can be performed laparoscopically in the outpatient setting.

» Why is Progesterone used for IVF?

Progesterone is required for the success of early pregnancy. In a natural cycle progesterone is made by the corpus luteum (CL). If the CL is removed during the first 5 weeks after conception, the pregnancy will miscarry. By about 9 weeks' gestation, the luteal-placental shift takes place: the trophoblast itself makes sufficient progesterone, and the pregnancy is no longer dependent on the CL. There are 2 reasons for giving extra progesterone after an IVF.

The first is that the CLs in IVF were all disturbed by the IVF needle during egg pick-up. The CLs start as follicles containing eggs. At the retrieval, the needle is placed inside the follicle, the egg is removed; and other cells may also be removed. The follicle is mostly fluid, but it also contains tons of cells that make up the follicle and surround the egg. These are called the granulosa cells; and these are the cells that convert to CL cells after ovulation. So if the needle removes some of these cells, as is usually the case, the CL would not work as well, and less progesterone is produced.

The second is to do with IVF medication. In a natural cycle, the hormone LH is secreted by the pituitary in small doses after ovulation, as this LH helps the CL to produce progesterone. However, during an IVF cycle, most women are given Lupride, Gonapeptyl or Ovurelix to suppress a premature LH surge at ovulation. In a natural cycle or IUI, surges are fine, they cause ovulation. In IVF, we need to time the retrieval to the hour, so that a surge at the wrong time ruins everything. So we give medicines to stop LH; but this means LH is no longer available to help the CL with progesterone production as well.