Updated December 6, 2018.
While the journey to pregnancy can be straightforward for some, others face roadblocks along the way. For the nearly 15 percent of American couples who do not conceive within the first year of trying (i.e., unprotected sex about two to three times a week), their journey has an official label: Infertility. Many factors can contribute to fertility troubles, and the health of both partners plays an important role. In fact, male infertility accounts for about half of the couples who are unable to conceive.
The primary causes of male infertility include low sperm production, abnormal sperm function, or blockages that prevent the delivery of sperm. But while these issues are sometimes the result of underlying health problems, they can also be caused by certain lifestyle factors. One recent study even suggests that the type of job a man has can significantly impact his chances of conceiving with a partner.
What did the study find?
After examining 456 men around the age of 32 who were in committed relationships and had stopped using contraception, researchers found that 13 percent of the men with physically demanding jobs had low sperm counts. In contrast, only 6 percent of men who did not perform such strenuous work had lower semen concentrations. The researchers were able to demonstrate that the physical demands of the job were what mattered: Other work factors like late-night shifts, heat, noise, or prolonged sitting were not associated with semen quality.
Physical work on the job wasn’t the only factor the researchers linked to sperm quality. Men diagnosed with high blood pressure faced issues as well, presenting lower percentages of normally shaped sperm. It isn’t known whether the elevated blood pressure itself or the treatments used to combat it are behind the association, but there is reason to believe medication usage could be a contributing factor as well; men who took multiple medications were more likely to have low sperm counts. While a normal sperm count is between 40 million and 300 million, 15 percent of men who took two or more medications had sperm counts below 39 million. Only 7 percent of those who took no medications had the same problem.
While the study did demonstrate an association between these factors and sperm quality, it’s important to note that it did not point to a clear cause and effect. But the results do add to existing data indicating how various lifestyle factors may be tied to male fertility problems.
What else can affect male fertility?
Other known risk factors that have been linked to infertility in men include:
- Smoking tobacco.
- Excessive use of alcohol and marijuana.
- Taking certain illicit drugs including anabolic steroids and cocaine.
- Being overweight.
- Suffering emotional stress.
- Overheating the testicles–frequent use of saunas or hot tubs can temporarily lower the sperm count, as can sitting , wearing tight clothing, or working on a laptop for extended periods.
- Exposure to toxins like benzenes, pesticides, herbicides, etc. which can lower sperm count.
- Having certain current or past STIs including chlamydia and gonorrhea.
- Experiencing a varicocele, a swelling of the veins that drain the testicles and can prevent normal cooling. This is the most common, reversible cause of male infertility. Varicoceles are often asymptomatic, but over time, they can enlarge and become more noticeable. Rarely, they can cause pain that varies from sharp to dull discomfort, increases with standing or physical exertion, worsens over the course of a day, and is relieved by lying on the back.
- Performing certain prolonged activities like biking or horseback riding, especially on a hard seat or poorly adjusted bicycle.
- Other medical causes include hormonal imbalances, sperm duct defects, undescended testicles, and tumors.
What are the signs of male infertility?
There may not be obvious signs or symptoms of male infertility other than the inability to have a child. Many men are not aware they have fertility problems until they attempt to conceive with a partner. But in some cases, signs and symptoms do arise, including:
- Problems with sexual function
- Pain, swelling, or lump in the testicle area
- Recurrent respiratory infections
- Decreased facial or body hair
What can I do?
If you are a man experiencing fertility problems, there are steps you can take to address the issue and certain lifestyle changes you can make to improve your chances of conceiving with a partner.
- Examine how your job is affecting your health. If your job is physically demanding, reducing the amount of heavy lifting you do could be beneficial.
- Combat high blood pressure with a healthy diet and appropriate physical activity.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Practice stress management techniques.
Make an appointment with your provider if:
- You’re unable to conceive a child after a year of regular, unprotected sex
- You have erection or ejaculation problems or low sex drive
- You have pain, discomfort, a lump, or swelling in the testicle area
- You have a history of problems with the testicles, prostate, or sexual function, or have had surgery on the groin, testicle, penis, or scrotum
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
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