Sperm health – who cares?
Sperm Health Professor Sheena Lewis, Chair of The British Andrology Society puts the ‘Plummeting Sperm Counts’ story in context.
I have been an advocate for men and their fertility problems for most of my career. I was concerned by the sensational headlines that were online following the latest ‘plummeting sperm counts’ study last month.
Let’s stay calm and remember that this same alarming message was first reported in 1992. When doctors and scientists looked carefully at the data, they reported that that study was fundamentally flawed and sperm counts hadn’t dropped. So, let’s give the experts time to drill down into this latest report and give us their opinions before we jump to scary conclusions.
Let’s also remember that men can produce the huge number of 500 million sperm at a time so even a 50% drop still leaves plenty of sperm for a couple to get pregnant. Finally, even if this report is true, it is a wake- up call for Society to do more research over the next 25 years; it’s not useful for you as individual couples wanting to start a family now.
Of more concern is the consensus amongst experts that the quality of sperm is getting worse. However, this bad news is offset by the good news is that men can take control and often improve their sperm quality by some simple steps.
How can we measure sperm health?
To understand that we need to know what makes up a sperm. It’s most important content is it’s DNA. In fact, it has little else except a strong tail to propel it on its marathon journey so its precious DNA can join up with that of the egg. Until recently sperm health was only measured by a semen analysis. This involved a microscopic examination of sperm numbers (sperm count or concentration), their swim speed (motility) and their shape (morphology). This is the best starting point to check these basics. Yet, this analysis only looks at the outside of the sperm so it’s a really blunt instrument to measure sperm quality.
As a baby’s DNA is half from Dad and half from Mum, healthy sperm DNA is vital for a healthy baby. But often sperm DNA quality isn’t tested. One recent study reported that 80% of men attending for fertility investigations, who were told their semen was normal, had high sperm DNA damage that the semen analysis hadn’t been able to detect.
We know that poor sperm DNA can lead to less success with fertility treatment. So it makes sense that men having infertility investigations should have a semen analysis plus a sperm DNA check. Testing in advance can save couples time, money and heartache.
Recently, scientists have also made a major breakthrough in our understanding of miscarriage. We used to think miscarriage was just a woman’s problem. Now we know the man is involved too. Poor sperm DNA can double the risk of miscarriage.
Common medical problems that injure sperm
All too often, infertility is seen as a woman’s problem; with the emphasis on female investigations and treatments. Now, we now know that this is wrong. Forty percent of a couple’s fertility problems are male so to give couples the best chance of their family, we need to examine and care for both partners equally.
Sometimes male fertility problems arise from a medical cause. It may be that you have a chronic low- grade infection you don’t even know about. You may have a varicoele; lumpy veins on your testes. You probably knew you had them but you thought everybody else had them too. You may have had a previous surgery or a sports injury that left a problem. It might be just that you are on some medication that stops healthy sperm production. Often these problems can be sorted out easily by a visit to your family doctor or a referral to a specialist for a minor procedure.