Most people will have the strong desire to conceive a child at some point during their lifetime. Understanding what defines normal fertility is crucial to helping a person, or couple, know when it is time to seek help. Most couples (approximately 85%) will achieve pregnancy within one year of trying, with the greatest likelihood of conception occurring during the earlier months. Only an additional 7% of couples will conceive in the second year. As a result, infertility has come to be defined as the inability to conceive within 12 months. This diagnosis is therefore shared by 15% of couples attempting to conceive. We generally recommend seeking the help of a reproductive endocrinologist if conception has not occurred within 12 months. However, there are various scenarios where one may be advised to seek help earlier. These include:
History and physical examination – First and foremost, your fertility physician will take a very thorough medical and fertility history. Your doctor may ask you many of the following questions: How long have you been trying to get pregnant? How often are you having intercourse? Do you have pain with menstrual periods or intercourse? Have you been pregnant before? What happened with your prior pregnancies? Have you had any sexually transmitted infections or abnormal pap smears? How often do you have menstrual cycles? Do you have any medical problems or prior surgeries? Do you have a family history of medical problems? These and many other questions will help your physician design a specific evaluation and potential treatment for you. In addition to a careful history, a physical evaluation may also be performed. Transvaginal ultrasound – Ultrasound is an important tool in evaluating the structure of the uterus, tubes, and ovaries. Ultrasound can detect uterine abnormalities such as fibroids and polyps, distal fallopian tube occlusion, and ovarian abnormalities including ovarian cysts. Additionally, transvaginal ultrasound affords the opportunity for your physician to assess the relative number of available eggs. This measurement is called the antral follicle count and may correlate with fertility potential. Laboratory testing – Depending on the results of the evaluation discussed above, your physician may request specific blood tests. The most common of these tests include measurements of blood levels of certain hormones such as estradiol and FSH, which are related to ovarian function and overall egg numbers; TSH, which assesses thyroid function; and prolactin, a hormone that can affect menstrual function if elevated. Hysterosalpingogram (HSG) – This test is essential for evaluating fallopian tubal patency, uterine filling defects such as fibroids and polyps, and scarring of the uterine cavity (Asherman syndrome). Many uterine and tubal abnormalities detected by the HSG can be surgically corrected. Semen analysis – The semen analysis is the main test to evaluate the male partner. There are four parameters analyzed: 1) semen volume – should be at least 1.5 to 2 ml. A smaller amount may suggest a structural or hormonal problem leading to deficient semen production; 2) sperm concentration – normal concentration should be at least 20 million sperm per 1 ml of semen. A lower concentration may lead to a lower chance for conception without treatment; 3) sperm motility or movement – a normal motility should be at least 50%. Less than 50% motility may significantly affect the ability for sperm to fertilize the egg without therapy; and (4) morphology, or shape – there are three parts of the sperm that are analyzed for morphology: the head, midpeice, and tail. Abnormality in any of those regions may indicate abnormal sperm function and compromise the ability of sperm to fertilize the egg. Ideally, using strict morphology criteria, a minimum of 5 – 15% normal forms leads to a better ability for sperm to fertilize the egg. An abnormal semen analysis warrants a further evaluation usually by a reproductive urologist. Your physician will refer you to a reproductive urologist if appropriate.