Infertility is a condition that affects approximately 1 out of every 6 couples. An infertility diagnosis is given to a couple that has been unsuccessful in efforts to conceive over the course of one full year. When the cause of infertility exists within the female partner, it is referred to as female infertility. Female infertility factors contribute to approximately 50% of all infertility cases, and female infertility alone accounts for approximately one-third of all infertility cases.
How Does Age Affect Fertility?
Women are born with a finite number of eggs. Thus, as the reproductive years progress, the number and quality of the eggs diminish. The chances of having a baby decrease by 3% to 5% per year after the age of 30. This reduction in fertility is noted to a much greater extent after age 40..
What Causes Female Infertility?
Caused by both bacteria and viruses and usually transmitted sexually, these infections commonly cause inflammation resulting in scarring and damage. A specific example is Hydrosalpnix, a condition in which the fallopian tube is occluded at both ends and fluid collects in the tube.
(2) Abdominal Diseases:
The most common of these are appendicitis and colitis, causing inflammation of the abdominal cavity which can affect the fallopian tubes and lead to scarring and blockage.
(3) Previous Surgeries:
This is an important cause of tubal disease and damage. Pelvic or abdominal surgery can result in adhesions that alter the tubes in such a way that eggs cannot travel through them.
(4) Ectopic Pregnancy:
This is a pregnancy that occurs in the tube itself and, even if carefully and successfully overcome, may cause tubal damage and is a potentially life-threatening condition.
(5) Congenital Defects:
In rare cases, women may be born with tubal abnormalities, usually associated with uterus irregularities.
Ovulatory disorders are one of the most common reasons why women are unable to conceive, and account for 30% of women’s infertility. Fortunately, approximately 70% of these cases can be successfully treated by the use of drugs such as Clomiphene and Menogan/Repronex. The causes of failed ovulation can be categorized as follows:
(1) Hormonal Problems:
These are the most common causes of anovulation. The process of ovulation depends upon a complex balance of hormones and their interactions to be successful, and any disruption in this process can hinder ovulation. There are three main sources causing this problem:
Failure to produce mature eggs:
In approximately 50% of the cases of anovulation, the ovaries do not produce normal follicles inwhich the eggs can mature. Ovulation is rare if the eggs are immature and the chance of fertilization becomes almost nonexistent. Polycystic ovary syndrome, the most common disorder responsible for this problem, includes symptoms such as amenorrhoea, hirsutism, anovulation and infertility. This syndrome is characterized by a reduced production of FSH, and normal or increased levels of LH, oestrogen and testosterone. The current hypothesis is that the suppression of FSH associated with this condition causes only partial development of ovarian follicles, and follicular cysts can be detected in an ultrasound scan. The affected ovary often becomes surrounded with a smooth white capsule and is double its normal size. The increased level of oestrogen raises the risk of breast cancer.
Malfunction of the hypothalamus:
The hypothalamus is the portion of the brain responsible for sending signals to the pituitary gland, which, in turn, sends hormonal stimuli to the ovaries in the form of FSH and LH to initiate egg maturation. If the hypothalamus fails to trigger and control this process, immature eggs will result. This is the cause of ovarian failure in 20% of cases.
Malfunction of the pituitary gland:
The pituitary’s responsibility lies in producing and secreting FSH and LH. The ovaries will be unable to ovulate properly if either too much or too little of these substances is produced. This can occur due to physical injury, a tumor or if there is a chemical imbalance in the pituitary.
(2) Scarred Ovaries:
Physical damage to the ovaries may result in failed ovulation. For example, extensive, invasive, or multiple surgeries, for repeated ovarian cysts may cause the capsule of the ovary to become damaged or scarred, such that follicles cannot mature properly and ovulation does not occur. Infection may also have this impact.
(3) Premature Menopause :
This presents a rare and as of yet unexplainable cause of an ovulation. Some women cease menstruation and begin menopause before normal age. It is hypothesized that their natural supply of eggs has been depleted or that the majority of cases occur in extremely athletic women with a long history of low body weight and extensive exercise. There is also a genetic possibility for this condition.
(4) Follicle Problems:
Although currently unexplained, “unruptured follicle syndrome” occurs in women who produce a normal follicle, with an egg inside of it, every month yet the follicle fails to rupture. The egg, therefore, remains inside the ovary and proper ovulation does not occur.
A small group of women may have a cervical condition in which the sperm cannot pass through the cervical canal. Whether due to abnormal mucus production or a prior cervical surgical procedure, this problem may be treated with intrauterine inseminations.
Abnormal anatomy of the uterus; the presence of polyps and fibroids.
Approximately 10% of infertile couples are affected by endometriosis. Endometriosis affects five million US women, 6-7% of all females. In fact, 30-40% of patients with endometriosis are infertile. This is two to three times the rate of infertility in the general population. For women with endometriosis, the monthly fecundity (chance of getting pregnant) diminishes by 12 to 36%. This condition is characterized by excessive growth of the lining of the uterus, called the endometrium. Growth occurs not only in the uterus but also elsewhere in the abdomen, such as in the fallopian tubes, ovaries and the pelvic peritoneum. A positive diagnosis can only be made by diagnostic laparoscopy, a test that allows the physician to view the uterus, fallopian tubes, and pelvic cavity directly. The symptoms often associated with endometriosis include heavy, painful and long menstrual periods, urinary urgency, rectal bleeding and premenstrual spotting. Sometimes, however, there are no symptoms at all, owing to the fact that there is no correlation between the extent of the disease and the severity of the symptoms. The long term cumulative pregnancy rates are normal in patients with minimal endometriosis and normal anatomy. Current studies demonstrate that pregnancy rates are not improved by treating minimal endometriosis.
(1) Other variables that may cause infertility in women:
At least 10% of all cases of female infertility are caused by an abnormal uterus. Conditions such as fibroid, polyps,and adenomyosis may lead to obstruction of the uterus and Fallopian tubes. Congenital abnormalities, such as septate uterus, may lead to recurrent miscarriages or the inability to conceive. Approximately 3% of couples face infertility due to problems with the femaleís cervical mucus. The mucus needs to be of a certain consistency and available in adequate amounts for sperm to swim easily within it. The most common reason for abnormal cervical mucus is a hormone imbalance, namely too little estrogen or too much progesterone.
(2) Behavioral Factors:
It is well-known that certain personal habits and lifestyle factors impact health; many of these same factors may limit a couple’s ability to conceive. Fortunately, however, many of these variables can be regulated to increase not only the chances of conceiving but also one’s overall health.
Diet and Exercise:
Optimal reproductive functioning requires both proper diet and appropriate levels of exercise. Women who are significantly overweight or underweight may have difficulty becoming pregnant.
Cigarette smoking has been shown to lower sperm counts in men and increases the risk of miscarriage, premature birth, and low-birth-weight babies for women. Smoking by either partner reduces the chance of conceiving with each cycle, either naturally or by IVF, by one-third.
Alcohol intake greatly increases the risk of birth defects for women and, if in high enough levels in the motherís blood, may cause Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Alcohol also affects sperm counts in men.
Drugs, such as marijuana and anabolic steroids, may impact sperm counts in men. Cocaine use in pregnant women may cause severe retardations and kidney problems in the baby and is perhaps the worst possible drug to abuse while pregnant. Recreational drug use should be avoided, both when trying to conceive and when pregnant.