Infertility causes and treatment

When you’re ready to start a family, you may not think having a baby could be challenging. But for many couples, getting and staying pregnant is not only a frustrating inconvenience, it’s a medical condition that affects both physical and emotional health. If you’re struggling with infertility, you're not alone. Millions of people around the world struggle with it too.1

What causes infertility?

It might seem like the stars have to be perfectly aligned in order to have a baby. In some ways, that’s true. Even in a perfectly healthy young woman, the odds of conceiving in any given month are only 20-25%.2 Infertility issues can stem from a male factor, female factor, or both. In some cases, no cause is determined (also known as unexplained infertility). About one in 5 couples experience unexplained infertility.3

Common causes of female infertility

To get pregnant, women need to have functioning ovaries, healthy fallopian tubes and a healthy uterus.If something interferes with the process of ovulation, fertilization or implantation, it may be a cause of infertility. The most common cause of infertility is a lack of ovulation.4 Other common problems may include:5

  • Hormone imbalance

  • Tumor or cyst(s)

  • Eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia

  • Alcohol or drug use

  • Thyroid gland problems

  • Excess weight

  • Stress

  • Intense exercise that causes a significant loss of body fat

  • Damage to fallopian tubes or uterus

  • Pelvic inflammatory disease

  • A previous infection

  • Polyps in the uterus

  • Endometriosis or fibroids

  • Scar tissue or adhesions

  • Chronic medical illness

  • A previous ectopic (tubal) pregnancy

  • A birth defect

  • DES syndrome

Common causes of male infertility

What causes infertility in men? Problems that may affect how the testicles work are the most common issues that may lead to male infertility in men. Other issues might include hormone imbalances, male reproductive abnormalities and lifestyle factors. Specifically, causes may include:6

  • Low sperm count due to genetic defects, diabetes or infections

  • Ejaculation disorders

  • Certain genetic diseases (cystic fibrosis)

  • Prior surgeries

  • Blockage in the testicle or undescended testicles

  • Damage or injury to the reproductive organs

  • Erectile dysfunction

  • Hormone imbalances

What are some infertility risk factors for men and women?

Some risk factors include: 

  • Age (Infertility risk increases after age 30 for women, due to quality and number of eggs, and sperm quality decreases in men 40-45)7
  • Chronic diseases, including diabetes and lupus
  • Congenital issues
  • Genetic issues

What steps can I take to increase my chances of conceiving?

Boosting your chances of getting pregnant may involve simple lifestyle changes. Here are some actions that could help.8

  • Getting to a healthy weight
  • Improve diet/exercise habits
  • Eliminate alcohol
  • Quitting smoking, if you smoke
  • Cutting back on caffeine
  • Find ways to destress

Talk with your doctor if you feel you need additional guidance on how to make lifestyle changes that may help increase your chances of getting pregnant.

How do I know it’s time to talk to a specialist?

When first trying to conceive, it’s common to see your general practitioner, urologist or gynecologist. If you’ve been struggling to get pregnant for more than a year without success, though, it may be time to see a fertility specialist for a fertility evaluation.

You may want to consider seeing a specialist sooner if:9

  • You’re a woman 35 or older and have been trying to get pregnant for 6 months
  • You’ve had 3 or more miscarriages
  • You have irregular, painful or heavy periods
  • You have endometriosis or a pelvic inflammatory disease
  • You have a chronic medical condition
  • You’re experiencing depression or other mental health issues as a result of infertility

What’s done during fertility testing?

Common tests for women include a pelvic exam, ultrasound to check the ovaries and uterus and blood test to check hormone levels. A hysterosalpingogram (HSG) can show whether the fallopian tubes are open or closed. Men will likely have a semen analysis and blood test.9

How is infertility treated?

  • Fertility medications
  • Injectable hormones to increase ovulation
  • Surgery for women with cysts, fibroids, endometriosis or blocked tubes
  • Assisted reproductive technology (ART), such as in vitro fertilization, or IVF. In vitro fertilization involves surgically removing eggs from the ovaries, combining them with sperm in a controlled setting, then — if the eggs become fertilized — returning them to the woman’s body, or donating them to another woman. It can be expensive and complex.10
  • Intrauterine insemination (IUI). IUI is a procedure that involves removing sperm and placing it directly into the uterus around the time of ovulation. It’s a shortcut for the sperm to get to the egg.11  This is common for same-sex couples who want to become pregnant.
  • Donor options, like donor sperm, donor egg or donor embryo.12
  • Gestational or host surrogacy, in which one intended parent is related to the child.13

Psychological impact of infertility

Infertility doesn’t just affect couples in a physical way, it may also cause emotional pain. There are high highs and low lows. It’s not uncommon to experience anxiety or depression during this time in your life, particularly when others announce a pregnancy. Remember, another person’s ability to get pregnant may not necessarily take away from your own. The process of trying to conceive may become all-consuming — with baby thoughts on your mind all the time. This stress may take a toll. Lean on friends and family, join a support group or find a professional to help you process your feelings and cope with emotions while experiencing fertility treatment (and try to be patient when people offer up the well-meaning advice to “stop thinking about it”). If you may feel emotionally and physically spent, your relationship may be suffering or you may be having trouble sleeping, you may want to consider talking to your doctor about possibly taking a short break from the demands of appointments, tests and treatments.