Treatment of infertility depends on the cause, how long you’ve been infertile, your age and your partner’s age, and many personal preferences. Some causes of infertility can’t be corrected. However, a woman can still become pregnant with assisted reproductive technology or other procedures to restore fertility.
Treatment for men
Approaches that involve the male include treatment for:
- General sexual problems. Addressing impotence or premature ejaculation can improve fertility. Treatment for these problems often is with medication or behavioral approaches.
- Lack of sperm. If a lack of sperm is suspected as the cause of a man’s infertility, surgery or hormones to correct the problem or use of assisted reproductive technology is sometimes possible. In some cases, sperm can be taken directly from the testicles or recovered from the bladder and injected into an egg in the laboratory setting.
Treatment for women
Fertility drugs are the main treatment for women who are infertile due to ovulation disorders. These medications regulate or induce ovulation. In general, they work like natural hormones — such as follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) — to trigger ovulation. Commonly used fertility drugs include:
- Clomiphene citrate (Clomid, Serophene). This drug is taken orally and stimulates ovulation in women who have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or other ovulatory disorders. It causes the pituitary gland to release more FSH and LH, which stimulate the growth of an ovarian follicle containing an egg.
- Human menopausal gonadotropin (Repronex, Menopur). This injected medication is for women who don’t ovulate on their own due to the failure of the pituitary gland to stimulate ovulation. Unlike clomiphene, which stimulates the pituitary gland, human menopausal gonadotropin (hMG) and other gonadotropins directly stimulate the ovaries. This drug contains both FSH and LH.
- Follicle-stimulating hormone (Bravelle). FSH works by stimulating maturation of egg follicles the ovaries.
- Human chorionic gonadotropin (Ovidrel, Pregnyl). Used in combination with clomiphene, hMG and FSH, human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) stimulates the follicle to release its egg (ovulate).
- Gonadotropin-releasing hormone analogs. This treatment is for women with irregular ovulatory cycles or who ovulate prematurely — before the lead follicle is mature enough — during hMG treatment. Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (Gn-RH) analogs suppress pituitary gland activity, which alters hormone production so that a doctor can induce follicle growth with FSH.
- Aromatase inhibitors. This class of medications, which includes letrozole (Femara) and anastrozole (Arimidex), is approved for treatment of advanced breast cancer. Doctors sometimes prescribe them for women who don’t ovulate on their own and who haven’t responded to treatment with clomiphene citrate. These drugs are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for inducing ovulation, and their effect on early pregnancy isn’t yet known.
- Metformin (Glucophage). This oral drug is taken to boost ovulation. It’s used when insulin resistance is a known or suspected cause of infertility. Insulin resistance may play a role in the development of PCOS.
- Bromocriptine (Parlodel). This medication is for women whose ovulation cycles are irregular due to elevated levels of prolactin, the hormone that stimulates milk production in new mothers. Bromocriptine inhibits prolactin production.
Depending on the cause, surgery may be a treatment option for infertility. Blockages or other problems in the fallopian tubes can often be surgically repaired. Laparoscopic techniques allow delicate operations on the fallopian tubes.
If you have endometriosis, your doctor may treat you with ovulation therapy, in which medication is used to stimulate or regulate ovulation, or in vitro fertilization, in which the egg and sperm are joined in the laboratory and transferred to the uterus.
Assisted reproductive technology (ART)
Each year thousands of babies are born in the United States as a result of ART. An ART health team includes physicians, psychologists, embryologists, laboratory technicians, nurses and allied health professionals who work together to help infertile couples achieve pregnancy.
The most common forms of ART include:
- In vitro fertilization (IVF). IVF involves retrieving mature eggs from a woman, fertilizing them with a man’s sperm in a dish in a laboratory, and implanting the embryos in the uterus three to five days after fertilization.
- Electric or vibratory stimulation to achieve ejaculation. Electric or vibratory stimulation brings about ejaculation to obtain semen. This procedure can be used in men with a spinal cord injury who can’t otherwise achieve ejaculation.
- Surgical sperm aspiration. This technique involves removing sperm from part of the male reproductive tract, such as the epididymis, vas deferens or testicle. This allows retrieval of sperm if the ejaculatory duct is blocked.
- Intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI). This procedure consists of a microscopic technique (micromanipulation) in which a single sperm is injected directly into an egg to achieve fertilization in conjunction with the standard IVF procedure.
- Assisted hatching. This technique attempts to assist the implantation of the embryo into the lining of the uterus by opening the outer covering of the embryo (hatching).
ART works best when the woman has a healthy uterus, responds well to fertility drugs, and ovulates naturally or uses donor eggs. The man should have healthy sperm, or donor sperm should be available. The success rate of ART is lower after age 35.
Complications of treatment
Certain complications exist with the treatment of infertility. These include:
- Multiple pregnancy. The most common complication of ART is a multiple fetus pregnancy. Generally, the greater the number of fetuses, the higher the risk of premature labor. Babies born prematurely are at increased risk of health and developmental problems.The number of quality embryos kept and matured to fetuses and birth ultimately is a decision made by the couple. If too many are conceived, the removal of one or more fetuses (multifetal pregnancy reduction) is possible to improve survival odds for the other fetuses.
- Ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS). If overstimulated, a woman’s ovaries may enlarge and cause pain and bloating. Mild to moderate symptoms often resolve without treatment, but severe cases — marked by abdominal swelling and shortness of breath — require emergency treatment. Younger women and those who have polycystic ovary syndrome have a higher risk of developing OHSS than do other women.
- Bleeding or infection. As with any invasive procedure, there is a risk of bleeding or infection with assisted reproductive technology.
- Low birth weight. The greatest risk factor for low birth weight is a multiple fetus pregnancy. In single live births, there may be a greater chance of low birth weight associated with ART.
- Birth defects. There is some concern about the possible relationship between ART and birth defects. More research is necessary to confirm this possible connection. Weigh this factor if you’re considering whether to take advantage of this treatment. ART is the most successful fertility-enhancing therapy to date.