Infertility is a symptom, not a diagnosis in itself. To treat your infertility and maximize your chances of successfully becoming a biological parent, you'll need to understand what's behind your fertility difficulties.
A number of diseases can reduce or eliminate fertility. And though it can be scary to get a diagnosis, the good news is that a number of fertility-interfering conditions can be successfully treated.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) affects as many as 10% of women. This complex and frustrating fertility disorder causes the body to under-produce follicle stimulating hormones while overproducing androgens. It can interfere with ovulation by delaying or eliminating the release of an egg, in addition to undermining egg quality. Women with PCOS may also be overweight, develop diabetes, or have irregular menstrual periods.
An autoimmune disorder causes the body to attack itself. Conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus undermine fertility in myriad ways. They may reduce the body's ability to produce healthy sperm or eggs, undermine the ability of an egg to implant in the uterus, damage bodily structures, or even cause a woman's body to attack a newly implanted embryo.
Uterine Fibroids and Polyps
Uterine fibroids and polyps are benign growths in the uterus. Though they can cause symptoms such as heavy, painful, or missed periods, many women never experience symptoms. Some women are able to get pregnant even with fibroids or polyps. Though, when the growths grow out of control or there are many, the chances of pregnancy are reduced. Uterine growths can interfere with the ability of an egg to successfully implant, and may undermine the growth of a newly implanted embryo. The result may be recurring miscarriages, or an egg that is fertilized but that never leads to a successful pregnancy.
Endometriosis is a common medical condition that causes uterine tissue to grow outside the uterus, such as on the ovaries or the fallopian tubes. Symptoms include heavy or painful periods, pelvic pain, and irregular menstrual cycles. Endometriosis varies in severity. Some women don't even know they have it, while others struggle for years with unbearable pain. The severity of endometriosis is the best predictor of whether it will impede fertility. Serious cases can constrict the ovaries or fallopian tubes. Even minor cases can make it difficult for the egg to implant in the uterine wall. If you have a history of problematic or painful periods, ask your doctor if you might have endometriosis.
Endocrine System Disorders
The endocrine system acts as your body's communication hub, regulating hormones that help one part of the body know what the next is doing. If your endocrine system is not functioning properly, your body might not produce hormones related to pregnancy, or might produce them in the wrong quantities. This can destroy sperm quality, eliminate ovulation, produce defects in sperm and eggs, or undermine the ability of an egg to implant in the uterus. Some common endocrine system disorders include:
- Thyroid disorders
- Adrenal disorders
STDs and Other Infections
A number of infections can undermine fertility. In some cases, these infections attack reproductive organs, interfering with their functioning. Infections may also lead to early miscarriages, and can interfere with the embryo's ability to implant in the uterus. For example, pelvic inflammatory disease, which can result from untreated STDs, may damage the uterus and fallopian tubes, making it difficult for an embryo to implant. If you have an active infection, a fever, a history of STDs, or a chronic health condition, be sure to let your doctor know.
Cancer can affect virtually everything about how your body works, including your fertility. Chemotherapy attacks all cells in your body, so if you are actively undergoing chemo, it's unwise to attempt a pregnancy. You could have a child with severe birth defects, experience multiple miscarriages, or suffer from long-term infertility. Most doctors recommend waiting until 12 months after chemotherapy to attempt a pregnancy.
Active cancer may attack your reproductive organs, making a pregnancy difficult or impossible. Particularly if you experience other symptoms alongside infertility, it's important to get a medical consultation as soon as possible. Even after your cancer is in remission, damage to reproductive structures can interfere with fertility. Anyone with a history of cancer should consult a reproductive specialist before trying to get pregnant.
Even if the sperm and egg are healthy and able to meet one another, structural abnormalities can undermine fertility:
- Problems in the male reproductive system can eliminate the ability to ejaculate, or cause less sperm to be present in ejaculate.
- Structural abnormalities in the female reproductive system may interfere with the egg's ability to implant in the uterus, or with the uterus's ability to maintain a healthy pregnancy. Defects in the cervix may cause early miscarriages or premature labor.
A number of fertility disorders can cause structural abnormalities, so any complete fertility work-up should include a screening of your reproductive organs, particularly if no other cause of your infertility can be found.