Azoospermia is a catch-all term used to describe situations where the lab finds no sperm during the semen analysis. This impacts 1% of all males in the US and comprises 10 – 20% of the male factor infertility cases. Unlike with varicocele, there is more agreement on how to treat these patients.
For sperm not to be produced, typically one of three things has gone awry:
Typically, pre-testicular azoospermia is driven by a hormone imbalance. In this case there is a breakdown in the hypothalamus, the portion of the brain that monitors hormone activity, or in the pituitary, the gland in the body that takes signals from the hypothalamus to secrete more or less of a hormone. The end result is that hormones that are required for producing sperm (FSH, LH, or testosterone) are not being properly produced.
Often pre-testicular azoospermia is highly treatable without IVF and, if the azoospermia is the result of lifestyle factors (namely poor diet, weight gain, or steroid use), it can be reversed. Men are often given FSH and LH supplements to make up for their inability to produce either, and if the man is taking testosterone (which we’ll address in the next chapter), he’ll be tapered off gently so as not to cause a psychological downswing. In about 90% of cases, men begin ejaculating sperm after 6 months of treatment and many couples can avoid undergoing IUI or IVF to conceive.
In this situation, the man’s body is producing the proper amount of hormones, but the testicles are not reacting properly to the hormones and are not producing sperm. Clinicians also refer to this as non-obstructive azoospermia as, by all accounts, there is nothing physically blocking sperm production and ejaculation.
Unfortunately, this is probably the hardest type of male factor infertility to treat.
Diagnosing testicular azoospermia can be either relatively painless, or more complex. If the man records an elevated FSH or LH level, most clinicians can confidently label the issue as testicular azoospermia.
However, if those FSH or LH levels read normally, it may be unclear if the issue is testicular in nature, or the result of some blockage (which will address next). If the reproductive urologist cannot find a physical obstruction, then they may need to perform a testicular biopsy to confirm the issue is testicular in nature.
Testicular azoospermia comes in a variety of types, some treatable, and others not. As we mentioned in the last chapter, if the issue is related to a varicocele that has damaged the testicles, varicocele surgery then IVF with ICSI has shown reasonably good results.
In some cases of testicular azoospermia, the testicles can still produce sperm that are mature and, in that case, through an invasive procedure – either TESE or MicroTESE – those sperm can be retrieved directly from the testicles for use in IVF with ICSI.
When sperm must be surgically retrieved from the testicles, IVF is a requirement. That’s because ICSI (Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection) is a requirement. ICSI is the process of injecting a single sperm directly into a woman’s egg. When sperm are surgically retrieved from the testicle, so few are available that only fertilization with ICSI stands a chance of working. ICSI can only be done by having the woman’s eggs, and man’s sperm, available in the lab, which means undergoing IVF is a necessity.
If sperm is retrieved, the American Urological Association believes 25 – 30% of patients will ultimately end up with a live birth from IVF with ICSI.
With MicroTESE (one of the surgical approaches), sperm can be retrieved from the testicle in about 60% of cases. When sperm is retrieved it can either be used immediately (which is known as “fresh” sperm) or after it has been frozen and later thawed (known as “frozen” sperm).
Teams from Stanford and The University Illinois – Chicago conducted a meta-analysis to determine if one approach was superior and came to the conclusion whether a couple used fresh or frozen testicular sperm made no difference amongst non-obstructive azoospermatic men.
While the results may appear to be somewhat similar, it’s important to recognize that the processes of using fresh or frozen testicular sperm in an IVF process are nothing alike.
When the couple plans to use fresh sperm, the woman’s eggs must be immediately available to be fertilized with the retrieved sperm. Often that means her eggs need to be retrieved at the same time as the sperm is retrieved, which entails the woman begins and commits to her IVF cycle weeks, or even months, in advance. This places pressure on the couple
What’s more, these married processes requires tremendous coordination between the reproductive urologist and fertility clinic to make sure the eggs and sperm are available at the same time and that the sperm is retrieved, processed and ready for fertilization in quick succession. This places pressure on the clinicians.
On the other hand, when a couple chooses to freeze their surgically-retrieved sperm, they plan to wait to inseminate the woman’s eggs. That means those eggs do not need to be available at the time of sperm retrieval, and so the woman is not forced to start her cycle, and have her eggs retrieved, on specific dates. This alleviates pressure on the couple and on the clinicians involved.
If the couple elected to use fresh sperm, but no sperm is retrieved during the surgical procedure, the woman has already started her costly IVF cycle. She can still have her eggs retrieved, but they must be frozen until the couple waits for sperm to become available. Many clinics are not experienced in freezing and thawing eggs and there is a risk that when those eggs need to be thawed, some will not survive.
Rather, had the couple elected to freeze their sperm, the woman would not have been forced to begin her IVF cycle to sync up with the sperm retrieval. If that sperm retrieval yields no sperm, and the couple decides to move forward using donor sperm, they could try using the donated sperm in a less costly, less invasive IUI procedure instead of starting with IVF.
On the other hand, freezing and thawing sperm carries additional risk.
First is the risk the frozen sperm does not properly thaw. When the teams at Stanford and The University of Illinois – Chicago combed through the literature, they noted that roughly 90% of retrieved testicular sperm properly thawed after it was frozen, which is likely reassuring.
The second underlying fear is that the retrieved sperm undergoes damage when it is frozen and thawed. While there is literature to suggest that is the case, the Stanford and Illinois – Chicago findings that the success rates were comparable should address some of this concern.