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Infertility is a heartbreaking experience for a couple, and it’s usually very unexpected. The future suddenly becomes very uncertain. In this article, we’ll answer common questions about infertility.

By having a stronger understanding of the meaning of infertility and what it looks like to struggle through infertility, we can know what to expect when we find ourselves in this struggle.

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Let’s explore all the basics you need to know about infertility, including:

  • The meaning of infertility, both in definition, and as lived experience
  • Symptoms
  • Causes
  • Common treatment options

Fertility and Infertility Definition

So many women spend much of their lives on birth control, being warned of how easy it is to get pregnant. “Just one accident is all it takes,” they’re told.

And of course, that can be true, so we’re NOT suggesting you throw caution to the wind.

But because of this experience, many young couples think that once they stop using birth control, they will get pregnant within a few months of trying.

However, in the United States, 10% to 15% of those who try to conceive are not able to get pregnant.

Despite their best efforts–having frequent, unprotected sex, following all the tips for trying to conceive, choosing the best ways to track ovulation–they find it shockingly hard to become pregnant.

Fertility and Infertility Definition

Infertility can be the reason why some couples are not able to reproduce naturally.

The word fertility refers to someone’s natural ability to conceive a baby.

The infertility meaning, on the other hand, refers to a couple that cannot conceive after a year of trying.

By definition, infertility means not being able to conceive. But the lived experience of it is distinctly different. The fertility and infertility definitions make it sound so simple, so stark.

But living with infertility can be a heartbreaking experience that makes many women question their bodies’. It’s a really tough emotional struggle.

1 in 8 couples deal with infertility, so no matter how isolating it feels, please know that you’re not alone.

Primary vs. Secondary Infertility

Most people think that only people who don’t have children experience fertility problems, but that’s not actually true.

When a woman has no living children, this is called primary infertility.

If a woman can get pregnant but has multiple miscarriages or stillbirths, that’s also considered as infertility.

But many women experience infertility even after birthing a healthy child. This is called secondary infertility.

Secondary infertility is when a woman is unable to get pregnant or carry a baby to term, despite having previously given birth to a child.

Secondary infertility is often caused by the same conditions as primary infertility.

And while it’s easy to dismiss someone’s grief because they already have living child, secondary infertility can be just as life altering and heartbreaking as primary infertility.

What is Male Infertility?

Another common misconception about infertility is that it’s caused by a physiological or hormonal problem in the female partner. And while this can be true, it certainly is not always the case.

The cause of infertility could lie in factors involving either partner. When infertility is connected to a physiological problem with the male partner, it is called male infertility.

Most people don’t know that male infertility is just as common as female infertility.

Which is important for a few reasons.

First, couples struggling through an infertility journey need to understand the importance of having both partners tested.

Checking the male partner for issues like healthy sperm production and vas deferens is equally as important as checking as checking the female partner for issues like hormone levels and uterine fibroids.

Second, while women regularly struggle with the emotional toll of infertility, it can also take a serious emotional toll on men. If more men knew how common male-factor infertility really is, they might feel less guilt and isolated.

Unexplained Infertility

In some cases, there are issues with both partners, or no cause can be determined, which is referred to as unexplained infertility.

Receiving a “diagnosis” of “unexplained infertility” can be maddening when all you want is answers.

So if you’re helping someone who’s dealing with infertility, know that unexplained infertility can be extremely overwhelming and upsetting. So keep it to yourself if you’re inclined to respond to their test results with an optimistic, “At least nothing is wrong!”

Even with unexplained infertility, there are many safe and highly effective treatment options that can significantly improve your chances of getting pregnant and carrying a baby to term.

We’ll talk about those in a bit.

First, let’s review the signs to look for, which can be an indicator of infertility in women and men.

photo of medical chart that ays infertility and shows syringe and stethascope

Symptoms of Infertility in Women

According to the Mayo Clinic, the main symptom of infertility is not being able to get pregnant.

And besides a menstrual cycle that is either too long (35 days or longer) or too short (21 days or less), there may be no other outward signs or symptoms of infertility.

There are some other signs of infertility that women can look out for:

  • Pain during intercourse
  • Diagnoses of endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), cancer, premature menopause, or damage to reproductive organs
  • Hormone changes, which can be indicated by unexplained weight gain, severe acne, female facial hair, thinning hair, and cold hands & feet
  • Obesity
  • Multiple miscarriages

Symptoms of Infertility in Men

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that men may encounter infertility if they have the following conditions:

  • A low sperm count or other sperm issues
  • Testicular dysfunction
  • Unhealthy habits, such as overuse of alcohol, cigarettes, or steroids
  • Issues with ejaculation, which may indicate retrograde ejaculation
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Hormonal disorders
  • Genetic disorders

Causes of Infertility

Many issues can cause a woman to experience infertility.

The Mayo Clinic suggests that these can include:

  • Ovulation disorders
  • Uterine or cervical abnormalities
  • Fallopian tube damage or blockage
  • Endometriosis
  • Primary Ovarian Insufficiency (read Laura’s Primary Insufficiency Story for a personal perspective on POI)
  • Certain cancers – and radiation or chemotherapy to treat cancer – can also impair fertility 
  • Women who are obese or go through early menopause can also have problems getting pregnant

 Male infertility factors are quite different from female ones. Male infertility can often be linked to:

  • Abnormal sperm stemming from a genetic defect
  • Diabetes
  • Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) 
  • Overexposure to environmental factors like chemicals, pesticides, or radiation.

Lifestyle factors such as smoking, taking anabolic steroids, or medications to treat bacterial infections, high blood pressure, and depression also can impact male fertility.

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Infertility Treatments

If you’ve been trying to get pregnant with no success after one year, or if you’re over age 35 or older and have been trying for at least six months, then it may be time to see your OB/GYN or a fertility specialist.

Your OB/GYN or fertility specialist can conduct testing on you and your partner to determine what may be preventing pregnancy.

Depending on the underlying problem, many fertility issues can be treated with medication, hormone treatments, or surgery.

Infertility can also be treated through assisted reproductive technology (ART) methods that have high pregnancy success rates. These treatments include:

Intrauterine Insemination (IUI)

According to the Mayo Clinic, IUI is a type of artificial insemination where “sperm that have been washed and concentrated are placed directly in your uterus around the time your ovary releases one or more eggs to be fertilized.”

In vitro fertilization (IVF)

This is a procedure where mature gees are collected and fertilized by sperm in a lab. Then, the embryo is placed in the uterus. It is also considered by the Mayo clinic to be the most effective form of assisted reproductive technology. 

Gamete intrafallopian transfer (GIFT) and Zygote intrafallopian transfer (ZIFT)

These are modified and faster versions of IVF. With GIFT, both sperm and eggs are mixed together and immediately inserted in the uterus. With ZIFT, a fertilized egg (zygote) is placed directly into the fallopian tube.

About ART for Fertility Treatment

The CDC explains that ART procedures sometimes use donor eggs, donor sperm, or previously frozen embryos.

ART can also involve using a surrogate or gestational carrier if the woman is unable to carry a baby on her own.

If you are struggling with infertility, know that most issues that prevent couples from having a baby are treatable.

If you are dealing with a condition that is not treatable, you may consider using assisted reproductive technology (ART).

Whatever you choose, know that you aren’t alone in the infertility struggle. You have a whole community here.

Are you struggling with infertility? Tell us your story in the comments.

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