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Varicocele and Male Factor Infertility

Varicocele and Male Factor Infertility

Varicocele and Male Factor Infertility

Varicocele and male factor infertility: Many men (40%) with low sperm count, low movement and high abnormal sperm shape have dilated veins around the testes. On the other hand, many men (15%) with varicoceles have normal sperm parameters and fertility. Only large varicoceles than can be felt by a physician are associated with lower fertility in men. Varicoceles are found during physical examination and can be confirmed with Doppler ultrasound of the testes. How dilated veins – varicoceles may cause abnormal sperm and male infertility is still unknown for sure (pressure, heat, toxin accumulation, oxidative stress).

varicocele surgery

varicocele surgery

Does surgical treatment of varicocele increase the chance of pregnancy in female partners?

Some urologists recommends surgical treatment of varicoceles in adult men to improve the chance for spontaneous conception

This recommendation should at least be issued if and only if:

  1.  Varicocele was large enough to be felt on examination (not ultrasound).
  2. The couple had documented infertility or desire future fertility.
  3. The female partner had normal fertility (especially normal egg reserve) or correctable infertility.
  4. The male partner had one or more abnormal semen parameters.

The rationale is that repair may restore normal sperm parameters and spontaneous conception. Varicocele repair is definitely not indicated in the presence of female factor requiring IVF e.g blocked fallopian tubes, as improved sperm parameters will not achieve a pregnancy. Some studies reported improved sperm parameters and sometimes fertility after surgical treatment of varicocele but many of them were low quality studies (no control group, not randomized, non-palpable varicocleles).

Good quality studies: randomized (one group of men underwent surgery for large varicoceles and another group did not)

Ten randomized studies were published (including 894 men). Some studies indicated improve in sperm parameters after surgery. Most of the studies indicated that the chance for live birth is not increased after varicocele repair. There is no conclusive evidence that varicocele repair increases the chance for pregnancy and delivery in female partners of men diagnosed with varicoclele (summary below).

Surgery or embolization for varicoceles in subfertile men:                     Varicocele is a dilatation (enlargement) of the veins along the spermatic cord (the cord suspending the testis) in the scrotum. Dilatation occurs when valves within the veins along the spermatic cord fail and allow retrograde blood flow, causing a backup of blood. The mechanisms by which varicocele might affect fertility have not yet been explained, and neither have the mechanisms by which surgical treatment of the varicocele might restore fertility. This review analysed 10 studies (894 participants) and found evidence (combined odds ratio was 1.47 (95% CI 1.05 to 2.05) to suggest an increase in pregnancy rates after varicocele treatment compared to no treatment in subfertile couples, in whom, apart from poor sperm quality, varicocele in the man was the only abnormal finding. This means that 17 men would need to be treated to achieve one additional pregnancy. However, findings were inconclusive as the quality of the available evidence was very low and more research is needed with live birth or pregnancy rate as the primary outcome (Kroese 2012).

 

Surgical repair of varicocele should only be considered in carefully selected subfertile couples. There is no conclusive evidence that repair increases the chance for delivery in female partners. Data supporting surgical repair of varicocele are controversial and results or surgery is certainly inferior to IVF-ICSI.

A consultation with reproductive endocrinologist & fertility specialist is very important before deciding on varicocele surgery to study female factor infertility and  discuss potential benefits and harm from surgery in achieving the final goal which is conceiving not just improving sperm count and motility.

varicocele and Male Factor Infertility
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Sperm Analysis in Natural and Assisted Conception

Sperm analysis is the initial test for evaluation of male fertility. Components of  sperm analysis include volume, count (concentration), movement and shape of sperm cells.

Normal Sperm Analysis

Sperm volume: the total amount of fluid produced. Commonly 1.5 mL or more.

Sperm count: number of sperm in each mL of fluid. Normal concentration is 15 to 20million per mL. Total count= volume x concentration (count).

Sperm motility: % of sperm with vigorous or moderate movement. Total motile sperm count=volume x concentration x %motility

Sperm morphology: Shape of sperm using strict (Tygerberg, Kruger) criteria 4% normal or more

Strict Sperm Morphology

Strict Sperm Morphology

Lower reference limits for men whose partner conceived within 12 months after stopping use of contraception had the following parameters (WHO manual , 5th ed.) are:
Semen volume (ml) 1.5 (1.4–1.7)
Total sperm number (106 per ejaculate) 39 (33–46)
Sperm concentration (106 per ml) 15 (12–16)
Total motility (PR + NP, %) 40 (38–42)
Progressive motility (PR, %) 32 (31–34)
Vitality (live spermatozoa, %) 58 (55–63)
Sperm morphology (normal forms, %) 4 (3.0–4.0)

All parameters should be interpreted in conjunction with clinical information. If abnormal it can be repeated in 2 to 3 months.

How much sperm is enough?

Evaluation of male fertility through sperm analysis is complex. Clinical factors in history and examination should be considered. Total sperm count in the specimen is an important factor e.g low sperm morphology in specimen of 200 million sperm may have a different effect than low morphology in a specimen of 30 million sperm. Although there are notable variations in a sperm sample of the same man over time, there is no evidence that repeat evaluation of semen in helpful in managing infertility in a female partner.

Since we have very limited tools (medications, supplements, surgery) to meaningfully improve sperm parameters and fertility, a practical management of fertility due to male factor is:

>10 million motile sperm: suitable for natural conception and IUI

2-10 million motile sperm: suitable for IVF

<2million motile sperm or strict morphology <2% suitable for IVF with ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection)

IVF + ICSI is indicated if surgical sperm harvest is needed and some cases or retrograde ejaculation and anti-sperm antibodies.

Can the sperm analysis be improved?

The count, motility and morphology can sometimes be improved (lifestyle modifications, medicine, surgery). Two important tips to consider though

a. In the majority of cases, there is no evidence that this improvement increases the odds of a pregnancy in female partner

b. The delay in treatment is sometimes critical for women with low egg reserve while they wait for their partners to improve there sperm parameters

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