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Hey, Hey, What Do You Say…What’s the Difference Between These “Ks”

Historically, the final shot, or the “trigger” shot, in an IVF cycle was almost always a fixed amount. While there was variability in what medication was given (hCG/novarel vs. ovidrel), the dosage was pretty standard. Both medications when administered correctly were pretty good at achieving egg maturation. Their differences were in many ways limited to cost and prep time. (hCG must be mixed, and ovidrel is a pre-filled syringe). Who got what was frequently based on insurance coverage and cost. Nothing to shake your pom-poms about! Fast-forward to about 2008, and the game got more interesting with the introduction of a new player, a.k.a. Lupron (leuprolide).

It was discovered around this time that Lupron could not only achieve egg maturation but also eliminate the risk of the dreaded ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS). Have we found ourselves both the rookie of the year as well as an MVP in one shot?

Yes and no. While Lupron is really good at avoiding OHSS for almost all, it falls short in achieving egg maturation for some. It requires the endogenous production of good amounts of LH (hormone made in the hypothalamus) to be effective. Without it, it really won’t work. Simply stated, it needs a teammate. Cue hCG or ovidrel. Giving two medications in combination (hCG + Lupron OR ovidrel + Lupron) is like drafting your dream team…dribble, shoot, score! Together, these medications (in the correct “K”) can achieve egg maturity without causing significant OHSS.

The tricky part about hCG, and where some of the confusion comes in (#most common on-call phone call for a fertility doctor!), is when we start to modify the dosage from the traditional 10,000 (a.k.a. 10K) down to 5K and then to 1K. In certain instances, we even modify it more to doses such as 2K or 3K. Why this can become so tricky is the mixing that the various “Ks” require. How you get from a 10K to a 1K dose is all about the water.

If you inject 1cc or mL of water (saline) into the powder and then give yourself a 1cc or mL injection, you have yourself a 10K shot of hCG. Not a problem if you are not cooking several dozen eggs. If you want a LOWER dose of hCG to reduce your risk of OHSS, you would increase the amount of water you inject into the powder to dilute the medication.

It would go something like this: 10 cc or mL of water into the same powder (rather than 1cc). However, you would ONLY give yourself a 1cc or mL injection of the water/powder solution. The more water = the more dilution = the less potent. Ovaries with a ton of potential that are being given Lupron alongside hCG don’t need so much oomph from the hCG. The combo is enough to get their system going without getting them sick.

While ovidrel is no slacker in terms of egg maturity, it is harder to play with the dose. Because the syringe is pre-filled it’s hard to manipulate the dosage. For this reason, many clinics have moved away from using ovidrel in exchange for hCG. It’s VERY important to discuss the trigger medication and what would be best for you and your ovaries before starting the cycle. It can be a huge bummer when you spent your hard-earned cash on a trigger medication that you can’t or don’t want to use. Also, make sure to get the playbook before you leave your doctor’s office on the morning of the planned trigger shot. Getting new instructions only a few hours before the big game can be incredibly overwhelming.

As physicians, we are here to be your cheerleaders and guide you in this “Hey, hey, what do you say?” chant as you throw the final pass. The trigger medication is the grand finale of a whole lot of plays. It’s important to get the medication and the dose right to ensure that your cycle ends on a touchdown and not on a fumble!

Where to Place Your Bet: The Difference Between Egg and Embryo Freezing

Who doesn’t love a good pre-game? Standing in a parking lot with the sun beating down on your back, relaxing with your friends: life couldn’t be better. While you may don a Giants jersey and your friend Eagles green, your pregame rituals are pretty much the same. Good food, good drinks, good times. When you enter the stadium, that’s when things start to change.

The same can be said for the difference between freezing eggs and freezing embryos. The “pre-game” part is pretty much the same—you take injectable gonadotropins (hormones) on a daily (sometimes twice daily) basis. This doesn’t change whether you are freezing eggs or embryos. Additionally, in both cases the medications and the morning visits will most likely start with the start of your period and go on for about 10 days. Therefore, in terms of the stimulation (a.k.a. the pre-game process) the two are pretty much the same. It is not until the eggs are retrieved that you run to opposite sides of the field.

If you’re rooting for team egg freeze, here’s what your game plan will look like once we start to play ball. Shortly after the eggs are retrieved, they will be evaluated for their stage of development (mature versus immature). Those that are mature will be frozen immediately. And this is where the information about your eggs and your fertility ends. You will know nothing more about your frozen friends other than quantity. We cannot tell how many will be “good” (a.k.a. make a baby) and how many will be bad (a.k.a. do nothing). But as most American possessions go, the more, the better. Women who have more eggs frozen will have a better chance of pregnancy from them in the future.

And in the blue corner, we have team embryo freezing! For those that choose to embryo freeze, after the eggs are extracted they will be fertilized with sperm. The resultant embryos will then be watched over the next several days in the laboratory. How they grow, how they divide, and how they develop is very telling for their health. Some, if not several, will drop off along the way—those that can’t hack it in the lab would definitely not hack it in the uterus.

In many ways, the lab is like the ultimate test of survival, or natural selection. At the end of the game, you may only have a few players on the field, but these players are tough, resilient, and really know how to play the game. They have weathered the storm and are your true MVPs.

In many ways, egg freezing is like drafting a player who has demonstrated potential in college but has not yet played in the big leagues. They should be good, but you can’t know for sure. It’s also hard to survey the newbies in spring training and know who and how many superstars you’ll have at the end of the season.

In the same vein, if your ovarian reserve tests are normal and there are no red flags in your medical history, you should have some good potential in your eggs. Embryo freezing is like signing a player who has already won rookie of the year. You know more about the player’s (a.k.a. embryos’) ability to hit it out of the park because they have already been vetted. Take it one step further…if your embryos undergo PGS (also called CCS or TE biopsy—the chromosomal analysis of embryos), we have even more information about their ability to make a baby. You have vetted them in the most aggressive way possible.

For many women, embryo freezing is not even an option. Unless you have a partner or chose to use donor sperm, without a sperm source, you can’t make embryos. The lack of sperm and the ability to make embryos are NOT a bad thing AT ALL! And we definitely don’t recommend using donor sperm just to make embryos and have more information about your egg quality. In these situations, egg freezing is totally the way to go! Additionally, even if you have a partner, egg freezing may be a better option for you. Not to be Debbie Downers, but nearly half of all relationships end in divorce. So be careful about who you mix your gametes with!

If you are even thinking about freezing, be it eggs or embryos, you’re being proactive. You are several steps ahead of the game. It’s like you’re planning your roster months before opening day! Either way you do it, you’re giving yourself options and choice. And that’s really why you did this in the first place. So however you get on the field, you are here to play ball—go, girl, go!

The Lingo

We talk fast, sometimes too fast…way too fast! We also move fast and think fast—we can’t help it; we’re New Yorkers! But sometimes we need to slow down, not only how we talk but also how we move, both through our days and through our lives. And while it’s going to take work (#meditation) to slow things down, we can help those whom we frequently talk to (a.k.a. our patients) better understand the shorthand or lingo that we are using for medical terms. Think of the following as the Truly, MD, fertility language translator. We offer you the top 15 most frequently heard acronyms in the halls of a fertility clinic, in alphabetical order.

ART: Who doesn’t like to paint and color? And although we, too, like an adult coloring book (they’re now all over the place!), the ART we are referring to stands for Assisted Reproductive Technologies. Anything where fertilization occurs outside of the body (think IVF, egg donation, or surrogacy) is under the paintbrush of ART.

Azo: Despite the way it’s written, you’re not about to visit the zoo. Azo comes from the Greek word azoos, which means lifeless. In fertility medicine, azoo– is a prefix that, when placed before -spermia describes the lack of sperm found in the ejaculate. It can occur either when sperm is not being produced OR when sperm is being produced but its exit out of the testicles is blocked. In both cases, it requires an evaluation by a urologist.

CCS: Think of a girl named Elizabeth. Elizabeths can be Lizs, Beths, Lizzies, and even Elizas. Sometimes they drop the nickname thing completely and go by Elizabeth. Simply stated, there are many ways to refer to your friend named Elizabeth. Same goes for the names we use to describe the genetic testing of embryos. CCS, or comprehensive chromosomal screening, is a term used to describe the genetic testing procedure that checks to see how many chromosomes an embryo has (remember, 46 is the magic number!).

DOR: Women with low egg count and low egg quality are frequently diagnosed with diminished ovarian reserve. Simply stated, the “fuel tank” in the ovaries is running low. The ovaries have a finite number of eggs. Once we exhaust that supply, there is unfortunately no way to “refuel the tank.” To maximize what is remaining in the ovaries, fertility doctors will often recommend IVF.

hCG: Everyone’s favorite hormone. hCG is the hormone that is secreted by a pregnancy, so when it is positive or present in your blood or urine, it indicates that you’re pregnant. And while it can’t tell us if the pregnancy will be good, it tells us if something is there. On the flip side, it is also a shot we administer to achieve ovulation and egg maturation.

IC: Simply stated, IC = intercourse. Intercourse = sex. We, as fertility doctors, “prescribe” IC frequently. By using tools like your menstrual cycle, your ultrasound, and your blood work, we can predict when you will ovulate and when “having IC” will give you the best chance of “having a baby.”

ICSI: Staying with the egg-meets-sperm concept when ICSI is performed, this meeting takes place in a whole different spot in a whole different way. There is no swimming or mingling, but there is a whole lot of selection. During ICSI (intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection), an embryologist will select individual sperm and physically inject them into the egg to achiever fertilization. In most cases, the highest rates of fertilization are achieved following ICSI.

IUI: In the body, sperm has to swim—from the vagina, to the cervix, to the uterus, and to the tube to finally meet the egg. And while this journey is fairly short and fairly quick (most sperm reach the tube in less than two minutes), it can be taxing. IUI (also known as intrauterine insemination) is sort of like a way to bypass step A and step B, allowing them to get to step C much faster!

IVF: Fertility medicine has come a long way, baby! And while we have seen a lot on both the diagnostic and treatment side, the biggest leaps and bounds have come with in vitro fertilization (#IVF). In the most basic terms, when an egg meets a sperm outside of the body and fertilization occurs in the laboratory, that’s called IVF. The resultant embryo is either transferred back into the uterus three to five days later or frozen for future use.

Oligo: Going back to our Greek roots is where we will find the definition for the frequently used prefix in fertility medicine, oligo-. Simply stated, oligo means few, little, or scanty. We often put it in front of medical terms such as -spermia (a.k.a. sperm) or -menorrhea (a.k.a. period) to describe how many or how frequently something occurs.

OPK: OPKs have become a part of a reproductive age woman’s vernacular! They are so commonplace that we often forget they are somewhat new to the fertility scene. OPK stands for ovulation prediction kits, and they are an OTC (a.k.a. over the counter) means to know if you’re ovulating. While it does require urine, some diligence (you frequently need to take the test several days in a row), and anywhere between $20 and $100, it can provide helpful information regarding when and if you’re releasing an egg.

PGD: Although PGD and PGS are used interchangeably, they are not identical. PGD describes the genetic testing of embryos for single-gene disorders. PGS is looking to make sure that the embryo has the accurate number of chromosomes. To do PGD, you have to be looking for the presence or absence of a specific genetic condition, not for overall chromosome number. Picture this…if you and your partner are both carriers for Cystic Fibrosis, you would do PGD on the embryo to make sure that embryo will not inherit the disease. We can test for hundreds of genetic conditions as long as we know what the specific mutation is.

PGS: In many ways, PGS is the umbrella term for everything that “rains” genetics. Pre-genetic screening involves screening the embryos through a variety of techniques for chromosome number. It is probably the most frequently used term, by both physicians and patients, to describe embryo genetic testing.

TE Biopsy: We are taking you back to “Elizabeth” one last time…just with a bit of a twist. TE biopsy (a.k.a. trophectoderm biopsy) finds itself in the same family of terms used to describe genetic testing. However, TE biopsy actually describes the technique that we use to obtain the cells needed for the genetic testing. The trophectoderm is the part of the embryo that will become the placenta, months down the road. We take cells (biopsy) from the trophectoderm and send it to the genetics lab for analysis.

Although it’s fairly likely that we missed a few frequently used ph-rases (that’s what happens when you move fast!) this list captures most of the big ones. Use it as your cheat sheet when trying to decode the language you hear at a fertility clinic. And while you may never totally speak the same language as your fertility doctor, at least you will come pretty close to being fluent.

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: What to Do When Your First IVF Treatment Fails

Can’t stop, won’t stop; it’s not for nothing that this may be one of our favorite sayings. As overplayed as it might be and as trite as it might sound, it’s pretty much how we aim to live our lives, how we chose to tackle our challenges, and how we hope to make it to the end of a marathon. We push each other, we push ourselves, and we push ahead to get to OUR end.

But life is not a race, and there is no set finish line (except for the obvious one that we won’t harp on). How you end your day, how you end your career, and how you end any struggle in many ways is up to you. You set the start line, the halftime, and the finish line. Much can also be said for how many rounds of fertility treatment you decide to do and how long you continue to try for a baby.

Knowing when to call it quits can be nearly impossible. Whether professionally or personally, it’s hard to know when enough is enough. In terms of fertility treatment, specifically IVF cycles, how much is too much? How many is too many? When do you move on to something else?

A recent study from England published in a very prominent medical journal (JAMA) recently addressed this question. It got a whole lot of press and found its way into the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and all of the morning talk shows. It basically showed that women who hung in the game were more likely to get pregnant—quitting after a couple of failed IVF cycles was not the right move. Although they didn’t find a magic cutoff number after which patients should be told to exit stage left, they did find that nearly 70% of women under the age of 40 got pregnant after six IVF cycles. While about 30% of women got pregnant on the first cycle, many took longer to cross their finish line.

The results were less promising for women older than 40; while they also got pregnant at a higher rate after more IVF cycles, the total number did not exceed 30%. Bottom line, even though this study got as much press as a Kardashian wedding, it’s important not to misanalyze the data.

This study is NOT giving the green light to endless IVF and fertility treatments. This study is NOT saying that multiple IVF cycles are always the way to go. This study is NOT saying everyone who does multiple IVF cycles will get pregnant. This study is simply saying that, if you can emotionally, physically, and financially (unfortunately, finances come into play big time) swallow the treatment AND your doctor believes you are a good candidate, it’s okay to keep on keeping on.

Knowing when to bow out is nearly impossible. Unfortunately, there is no magic number. But here’s the CliffsNotes version from girls in the know… For starters, we use age, pregnancy history, and ovarian reserve testing to decide when enough is enough; these initial parameters can shed a lot of light about what’s to come.

Additionally, we use IVF response as a gauge of how much gas you have left in the tank—are you responding to medications, are you producing follicles, is your estrogen level rising?

Last, we use embryo development and, if available, embryo genetic testing results (PGS/CCS/TE biopsy, which tests for aneuploidy) to help patients decide whether further treatment is a go. For example, if patients have done several IVF cycles without any viable or normal embryos, we are hard pressed to recommend continued fertility treatments with your own eggs. And while no, history doesn’t always repeat itself, in these cases, it comes pretty close.

We are not dictators, czars, fortune tellers, or goddesses (although we wish we were)—and we are not afraid to admit that. We can’t tell you that more will be better; it may just cost more money, cause more physical discomfort, and evoke more emotional anguish. But quitting too early can be a real shame.

Just like in sports (from two women that love to pound the pavement!), there should always be a day for rest, always a moment to breathe, and always a time to stop. Without a break, you get injured. Without a day to sleep in, you get fatigued, and without days off from work, you get frustrated. In cases where there is no definable finish line for you or your partner, you may need your doctor to help you set it. When you collectively find that line in the sand, be careful not to step over it. Things will start to sink quickly on the other side.

The Art and Science of IVF

As first-year medical students sitting in the back of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine lecture hall, we had no idea what to expect from the Art and Science of Medicine course. We all thought of ourselves as scientists (I mean, this was medical school!). Art was far from most of our minds. Questions like “What will this class be like?,” “Will it be lecture-based or textbook-based?,” and “Will the exams be graded or simply marked Pass or Fail?” flooded our minds. In typical Jaime and Sheeva fashion, poised with pens in our hands (we were both ferocious note takers!), we were ready to transcribe every word uttered by the lecturer to soak up and eventually memorize every piece of data shared. However, what followed surprised us: we would not be note taking, we would not be studying, and we would not be test taking.

We would learn about the art of medicine.

Art and medicine may strike some of you as odd. It did us! Medicine is a practice rooted in science and data, not color or design. The people you knew who became doctors did it because they liked facts, not pictures. However, in reality, how we diagnose a disease, how we treat a problem, and how we formulate a plan are really an art. The many available imaging modalities, medications, and surgical procedures are our colors. How we blend them to get the best outcome for you, the patient, is our art.

For fertility doctors, ovarian stimulation in particular (a.k.a. how you get the ovaries to produce multiple eggs) is our art. What protocol we select for a patient, when we increase and decrease medications, and how to obtain the highest percentage of mature, good-quality eggs is our art (not to be confused with ART= assisted reproductive technology!). Sure, we have scientific data to guide us in our decisions, but what can make one IVF cycle more successful than the other has a lot to do with the art of ovarian stimulation. And we bring you back day after day for blood draw after blood draw and ultrasound after ultrasound not because we like to torture you but because it helps us customize your design, your art.

Don’t get us wrong. There is a lot of science in what we do. The laboratory is our science. The embryologists, the culture system, and the genetic testing are science. And without the science, our art is just some strokes on a blank canvas. It takes both, the art and the science, to treat a patient and to achieve success in all areas of medicine.

So, if you ever wonder why we do what do and how we decide on treatment protocols, they are our art. And when they are combined with science, it can make a beautiful picture!

Double Duty…Why Two Is Not Always Better Than One

It would be nearly impossible to count the number of times patients tell us the following regarding how many embryos to put back into the uterus: “I want two…it’s like two for the price of one!” “I want to be one and done!” “It’s like getting a twofer!”

And while we understand the desire for two (trust us, the thought of minimizing the number of times one is pregnant does sound appealing), twins are not just double strollers, matching onesies, and names that start with the same first letter. Twins and triplets-plus can be complicated, not only for the babies but also for the mother. Therefore, serious thought needs to be put into how many embryos are put back into the uterus.

Old-school fertility doctors routinely transferred several embryos into the uterus at one time; twins, triplets, and even quadruplets were sort of the “cost of doing business.” Back in the day, our IVF techniques weren’t so great. The procedures were new, and there were a lot of unknowns. To increase a patient’s chance of getting pregnant, multiple embryos were put in. Although even then, “the more the merrier” wasn’t our motto, (women are not meant to carry litters!), we were limited in our ability to identify which embryos had the best chance of making a healthy baby.

Fast-forward 20-plus years, and we are actually really, really good at this stuff. Not only do we know exactly what a three-day-old embryo needs to grow in versus a five-day-old embryo (can you believe it they are already picky eaters at this age!) but we also actually have the ability to check them and make sure they have the right number of chromosomes!

Now, while we can’t tell if they will look like you or your partner or go to Harvard or Yale, we can take a few cells and check to make sure they have the correct number of chromosomes. (The magic number is 46!) When this technique is done and a healthy embryo is found, we almost routinely only put one back in because even this guy or gal more than half the time makes a baby.

If you are considering an IVF cycle or are maybe even in the midst of one, make sure to have a long and serious discussion with your doctor about the number of embryos to transfer back in. Nowadays, not every IVF center is the same; many have the ability to grow embryos in the laboratory to day 5, rather than the traditional day 3. Although two days may seem inconsequential when it comes to most things in life, for an embryo, it’s a big deal. Just these 48 hours gives the embryo time to develop and the embryologist who is watching the embryo develop more information to pick the one that has the best chance of making a baby!

If you are lucky enough to have several A-plus embryos and your doctor only recommends putting one back in, the others can be frozen. Yup, we said frozen. Don’t worry; frozen embryos are not like frozen chicken! Embryo freezing has come a long way, and now in many centers, frozen embryo transfers have a better chance at making a baby than a fresh one. Simply stated, you won’t lose anything from freezing the extra embryos and putting only one embryo back in at a time. Sticking with the “one and done concept,” many couples get all the embryos they will ever need in one fresh cycle, thanks to good freezing techniques!

It’s sometimes hard to imagine that anything can go wrong in twin pregnancies. Nowadays, our schools and parks are teeming with twins; it really has become all the rage! But take it from us, not every twin pregnancy ends in a cute Anne Geddes photo. Twins have a higher chance of almost all risky pregnancy complications. On the fetal side, these include stillbirth, preterm delivery, and the serious problems that can come along with having a preterm baby: neurologic, cardiac, pulmonary, gastrointestinal, and serious developmental issues. Additionally, a high percentage of twins will experience some delay (motor and verbal skills) in the first two years of their life that requires treatment.

On the maternal side, women carrying twins or more have a much higher chance of serious medical complications. These include diabetes, high blood pressure (preeclampsia), heavy bleeding, hyperemesis (significant nausea and vomiting), Cesarean Section, and post-partum depression. Although most twins and most moms of twins will be running (actually, probably sprinting) and laughing in no time, there are a number of twins that will suffer permanent consequences from prematurity. The risks are real and should not be ignored.

And partners of those who have twins don’t get off easily, either. Sure, they don’t have to endure the insane stretch marks, the prominent varicose veins, and crazy swelling that multiple babies in one uterus at one time can bring, but let’s face it, double the work comes with added stress on the relationship. Studies have shown that divorce/separation rates are higher in families of multiples. Having a baby is not easy, sleepless nights and long days can be beyond difficult; imagine multiplying that by two!

We live in America too, and trust us, we get it. Other than pounds, for most of us, more or bigger always seems to be better. Why have one of something when you can have two? While we are not going all one-child-policy on you, we are advocating having one child at a time. It will be healthier for you and healthier for your unborn children. While twins are adorable and the bond they share is unlike any other sibling relationship, we are big fans of taking it one step at a time if possible.

When building a family, slow and steady is the best and safest way to get to the finish line.

When Is Enough, Enough? Does Fertility Treatment Have an End?

Some things are really hard to hear. Whether it is as simple as how your hair looks or how you look in that dress to how to treat an aggressive medical condition, the truth can really hurt. And oftentimes, accepting the truth can be nearly impossible. However, there are only so many times that you can hold your hands to your ears and play deaf. There are only so many times that you can ignore the flashing red lights in front of you. Ultimately, if you don’t change lanes you will find yourself at a roadblock that you can’t overcome or pass. However, knowing when it’s time to get out of the lane can be the hardest part. That’s what we are here for.   

As fertility doctors, our job is to guide you, to support you, to educate you, and ultimately to help you achieve your dreams of becoming a parent. We take the information provided to us by blood tests, ultrasounds, medical history, semen analyses, and family histories and with it try to see what is off, which pieces in this puzzle are not fitting together and how can we put the pieces back together.  

However, our job goes way beyond diagnosis. We are also there to implement and design treatment plans. Some plans you may like, and others, you may not. Some may seem too aggressive; others, too lax. Some may seem too involved, and others, too casual. Whatever it may be, you have to take the information and options presented to you, process them, and then proceed.  

But we cannot simply stand on the sidelines and watch you run into a 320-pound linebacker without a helmet. While your fertility doctor should be frank with you throughout your entire treatment course, this is particularly true when deciding on the best treatment strategy.   

At some point, the seesaw of pros versus cons is no longer even close to even. The American Society of Reproductive Medicine defines this tipping point as futile treatment (≤1% chance of achieving a live birth) and very poor prognosis treatment (>1% to ≤ 5% per cycle). Allowing a patient to continue to try when the odds are so incredibly low and not sharing such information is, in our opinion, criminal. Honesty is imperative in any doctor-patient relationship, but it is especially essential in fertility medicine.  

While we want to help you achieve your dream, we must be honest with you about the likelihood of achieving these dreams. Sometimes, dreams must be modified (donor eggs rather than your own eggs, a gestational carrier rather than your own uterus) in order to end happily.  

Closing the chapter on any stage of life can be difficult. It is wrought with confusion and anxiety. We are here to help you through this process, to help you move through the pages, and to reach the ending that will make you feel the most complete and the most content. Telling you what you want to hear may make you feel better, but it will likely not make you a baby. And although hearing what we have to say may sting, it may be the bite that leads you to parenthood. And in our line of work, parenthood is paramount. 

Seriously, Noooo Sperm! What Azoospermia Really Means to Men

Getting the phone call that you have flunked (even worse, scored a “zero”) yours or your guy’s semen analysis can be pretty devastating. The rush of emotions that runs through your head is more extreme than the waves seen in the famous Eddie Aikau surf competition. And when you realize what it could mean for your fertility, it’s like wiping out and then getting worked by the wave all in one go.

The first thing you should do is take a deep breath. One semen analysis doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road. However, if the repeat test confirms that there is nothing there, further investigative work needs to be done.

The medical term for no sperm is azoospermia (this is different than aspermia, which is the absence of sperm and seminal fluid at the time of ejaculation). Because men with azoospermia frequently have normal ejaculates, they can go undiagnosed for years—sperm is microscopic, so unless someone is looking really close at it with a high-powered lens, you can’t see those swimmers.

While azoospermia is every guy’s fear, it is actually pretty rare, phew! Only about 1% of all men have azoospermia (it is higher in couples that suffer from male factor infertility, and in these patients can be as high as 15%).

If your guy is one of the unlucky 1% and are searching for answers and information, we recommend thinking about it in the following way: Imagine you have three connecting flights coming into the airport at the same time. One is from New York City, one is from Boston, and one is from Atlanta. They are all connecting through Chicago to LA—all the passengers will be on the same second flight although they originated in different places. Azoospermia is the end point for post-testicular, testicular, and pre-testicular conditions; they all arise from different diseases (or departing cities) but ultimately land in the same place.

From City A, we have post-testicular azoospermia. (The testicles are making sperm, but there is a blockage preventing it from exiting and getting in the ejaculate). From City B, you have testicular azoospermia. In these cases, the exit pathway is clear, but the testicles are not producing sperm. The latter or “B” cases are generally much more difficult and often require donor sperm. From City C, we have pre-testicular azoospermia. Here, the testes are ready and waiting, but the signal is either not coming down correctly from the brain OR, due to underlying endocrine (hormonal) problems, the testes have failed to produce sperm.

After the initial diagnosis of azoospermia has been confirmed (two azoospermic samples where the seminal fluid is centrifuged for 15 minutes at super-high speed), your guy is usually sent to a urologist (specifically, one that specializes in male factor infertility) to see which “city” you have departed from. Through a full review of the medical history, a physical exam, an ultrasound, and lots of blood work, the urologist can usually get to the bottom of why there does not appear to be any sperm in the ejaculate. The tests that your partner will go through in many ways will mimic what you have been asked to do—we will check his FSH , LH , testosterone, thyroid hormone , and prolactin. We will also do extensive genetic testing to see if we can identify the problem.

It’s very important to do the full genetic work-up because there are often abnormalities which, if identified, can be passed on to future generations. Not good. While you may not know exactly what or why we are testing your plus one for, you should make sure that a full testing panel is performed. You should also make sure that you sit with both yours and your partner’s doctor so that, together, you come up with the best plan for you as a couple.

We don’t expect to make you urologists or even sperm connoisseurs, but we do want to help you better understand the potential answers to the azoospermia conundrum. We are going to give you a very basic review (and no quiz!) to help you better answer the questions that are likely racing through your head the minute you get the news.  

Flight A = Post-testicular Azoospermia: Here the problem happens not in the testes but after the testes. Going back to basic bio, the problems happen in the ducts that connect the testes to the urethra (think vas deferens). It can also occur from ejaculatory dysfunction. We don’t want you to cringe or try and picture it in your head, but the visual that you should have is that, in most cases, the testes are making lots of good-quality sperm. The sperm has just been stranded on an island waiting for a rescue boat (or connecting flight!). The rescue boat is either a surgical procedure to unblock the blockage (basically re-open the road), or if the road is totally beyond repair (think most major cities highways), then we go above the blockage (a.k.a. the testes). The latter is called a testicular extraction of sperm (nickname TESE or TESA). Surgically, a urologist will enter the testes and extract sperm (ouch, that doesn’t sound fun—don’t worry, you will get anesthesia!). This sperm can be used to fertilize eggs in an IVF cycle. The rescue mission is usually successful, and the resultant pregnancy rates are often quite good. Bonus is that we can often freeze sperm for use in the future (like years later) IVF cycles. Obstructive azo (as we fertility doctors call it) occurs in about 40% of men with azoospermia.

Flight B = Testicular Azoospermia: When the testes themselves are the cause of no sperm, it can be a bad situation. Like planes in a blizzard, nothing is taking off for a long time. Despite our advancements and flashy technology, much like ovarian failure, we cannot overcome testicular failure. Think of testicular failure like premature menopause; for some reason, the testes stopped making sperm long before their time. We usually know that we are dealing with option B (as opposed to A) because the FSH is elevated and the testosterone is low. Much like ovaries that are sort of done, when the testes stop working, testosterone (which is made in the testes) stops being produced. Last, in a physical exam, the testes are small (medically termed atrophic), and we have a pretty good idea we won’t find sperm. However, with this being said, barring a serious genetic condition, many urologists and fertility doctors will still go for the testicular sperm extraction surgery to confirm that we are truly running on empty. However, it is important to note that many testicular cases of azoospermia are a result of genetic abnormalities. Unfortunately, we don’t really know many of the genes causing the significant decline in sperm production. Therefore, if the sperm is successfully extracted and used to fertilize eggs, you could be passing some “bad fertility/sperm genes” on without even knowing what they are. While we are not saying you should not use the sperm, we are recommending that you chat with your doctors and a genetics counselor first.

Flight C: Pre-testicular azoospermia causes of azoospermia are the rarest. They are most frequently due to hormonal abnormalities that result in testicular failure or mixed signals coming down from the brain. If the brain is on a break and does not appear to be doing its job (or something is impinging on its ability to do its job), we can usually fix that. With the help of medications, we can get things back on track. It may take several months to get the engines going again, but it will get there. In fact, if sperm production can be restored, your guy may not need any surgical interventions, and while you still may need our help to get pregnant, you may not need IVF.

There is almost nothing more devastating than hearing that you or your plus one has run out of eggs or sperm before your time was supposed to be up. It’s unfair, it’s frustrating, and it can be downright infuriating. While using our services or donor sperm (if it comes to that) is likely not how you envisioned making a family, our goal is to make you a father. We can most certainly do that; even when the waves seem big and you can’t imagine riding another one, we promise you can. Just hang ten, and let us guide you to calmer waters.

Round and Round You Go: We Hope It Stops Where You Want to Go!

Unfortunately, it is more the norm for us to see or hear about couples (and individuals) that have undergone years of fertility treatments without success. Month after month, they take medications, inject themselves with hormones, and hold their breath as they wait for the pregnancy test results. For many of these patients, be it for medical reasons, financial reasons, insurance reasons, or misguided reasons, there is little that is changed between the negative cycles. We like to call this the merry-go-round effect: couples/individuals who continue the same ineffective treatments month after month without redirecting or reanalyzing the situation. It’s a bad situation that we want to help you change.

Let’s face it: after the same treatment, be it timed intercourse, oral medications, inseminations, or IVF, has failed continuously, something needs to change. Whether it be moving on to more aggressive treatments (or, as we say, stepping up the ladder!), tweaking the current protocol, or seeking a second opinion, you need to shake things up. There are many available fertility treatments that can be, and likely should be, utilized.

A patient-doctor relationship should be a partnership with give and take, as well as back and forth. Gone are the paternalistic days of medicine where the doctor speaks and the patient listens. Treatment decisions should no longer be dictated, but rather, discussed. If this is not happening for you and you find yourself in the merry-go-round rut, then you need to put the brakes on. Make a phone call, send an email, or sit down with your doctor to review your case. Bring your list of questions, and ask away.

If you don’t like the answers, don’t be afraid to take them and your struggles elsewhere. At some point, you have to either ask the attendant to stop the ride or simply hop off. Eventually, circling in the same direction stops being fun, exciting, or promising; it also makes you nauseous, dizzy, and loopy!

So be your own advocate, and shut this ride down. The park is huge, with so many more rides and adventures to explore.

What Goes up Must Come Down: What to Expect AFTER an Egg Retrieval

To all you cyclists, runners, rock-climbers, and challenge-takers, the hill can be a real beast on the way up. Pushing towards that summit can be exhausting and physically painful. However, once you peak and start the descent it’s a feeling like no other. You did it. Now, enjoy the reward of the downhill. Much the same can be said of the post-retrieval bloat, discomfort, and weight gain. After you reach the peak, it is smooth sailing.

Women are often shocked at how much worse they feel after the retrieval than before. While the swelling, heaviness, and blah feeling are definitely there before the retrieval, they’re about 10 times worse after! When we tell patients this, they’re often shocked. How can that be? You’re taking the eggs out; shouldn’t the symptoms get better? No, in fact, they get worse!

Let’s do a little Bio 101. Eggs are housed in fluid-filled follicles, and follicles live in the ovaries. Many follicles = big ovaries. Seems simple. During the egg retrieval, we drain the follicles of their fluid, and within that fluid comes the eggs. However, after the follicles are drained of fluid they fill with blood. They become corpus lutea (plural for corpus luteum—you learn something new every day!). The CLs (everyone needs a nickname) make a lot of hormones that can make you feel not so hot (#progesterone). Additionally, they often fill with blood. As a result, the ovary stays enlarged, and your belly stays big. This hormone soup keeps the ovaries large, the belly filled with fluid, and you feeling like a balloon at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade!

Okay, so I am going to feel awful…how long will this go on? The length of the post-retrieval to menses (a.k.a. period) varies based on the trigger shot you were given. Women that get straight HCG or ovidrel will feel the bloat for about 12–14 days. The HCG hormone in both of these formulations is like gas for the ovaries—they keep the ovaries charged and the hormones pumping. And although the symptoms will improve significantly after about seven days, you won’t be back in your skinny jeans until you get a period about 14 days later.

If you were given a Lupron or Lupron +HCG trigger, your period of pain will be protracted (that’s why we give it!). Most women will start to feel better about three to four days after the retrieval and get their period about seven days later. For the majority of women, the blah-blech feeling will steadily increase post-retrieval until you hit the peak about three-ish days later; the summit will be higher and the climb further if your trigger medication was straight-up HCG with no Lupron chaser.

When embryos are transferred back into the uterus during the stimulation cycle and you get pregnant, it’s like you are racing the Tour De France rather than your local 10-miler. The pregnancy will make HCG, and the HCG will make that hill way longer. You won’t recover for several weeks into the pregnancy. It is for this reason, along with new data on the OB benefits of fresh cycles, that we push you to press pause and freeze the embryos. Trust us. Your body, your ovaries, and your brain will thank us.

They say life is about the journey and not the destination. And we mostly agree with that. However, in terms of ovarian stimulation and the aftereffects it’s all about the destination. The climb up will likely not be fun. Keep your eye on the top, and take one step at a time. We’re right there beside you, cheering you on!