Nobody wants to do IVF. Whenever a couple or individual arrives at a fertility clinic, the strong goal is to work as naturally as possible to maximize the chances for pregnancy.
My suspicion is that this comes down to two reasons. Financial, yes, but importantly, emotional: For all of us, the plan was to achieve pregnancy naturally. It is a difficult step to move the act of fertilization into the laboratory.
But, if it has been more than six months of trying naturally together, there are three situations in which IVF may make the most sense:
Whenever male factor is present, couples may choose to try to maximize sperm quality. This could be done through lifestyle management, through vitamins to maximize sperm quality, through medication such as Clomid to maximize the stimulation of the testes, and through intrauterine insemination to deliver more sperm to the ends of the fallopian tubes.
But none of the above is as effective as doing IVF. This is because with IVF, we can bypass all concerns associated with count, motility, morphology, or obstructions related to previous vasectomy or a congenital absence of the vas. All are treated with a single procedure, by doing intracytoplasmic sperm injection, or ICSI. ICSI places the sperm into the eggs.
It is an extraordinarily effective treatment, as long as the sperm’s DNA can support a healthy embryo.
And so before doing IVF, you might consider getting a karyotype done to confirm normal genetics, and a DNA fragmentation assay of the sperm, if available, to ensure that the DNA being delivered is well packaged and likely to be easily handled by the eggs.
For these reasons, male factor subfertility may often be a serious frustration, but if sperm’s DNA quality can be confirmed, then your expectations for successful IVF can be very high.
It’s rare that compromised fallopian tubes will be able to be reopened through a cannulation procedure, very rare. The reality is that IVF is a far more successful approach, because it simply bypasses the fallopian tubes. Pregnancy rates can often be superb for a couple facing a situation where eggs and sperm are of good quality, the uterine structure is healthy, and the maternal health is excellent. If it is just a mechanical issue – sperm could not reach the eggs – IVF is a bypass.
As noted, we can try cannulation, or sometimes, if tubes are only partially compromised, we will look to inseminations.
“Partial compromise” can be very difficult to diagnose. Imaging, such as sonohystogram and HSG (hysterosalpingogram) will routinely miss compromised tubes, and the gold standard of investigation – laparoscopy – is highly interventional and invasive. For that reason, we miss fallopian tube compromise with great frequency, and arguably the number one cause for unexplained infertility will prove to be tubal dysfunction. It is for that reason that unexplained infertility is often also well treated through IVF.
A major risk for tubal compromise is low-grade endometriosis, but any source of pelvic scarring, including pelvic inflammatory disease from a previous STD like Chlamydia, a ruptured appendix, or other bowel surgery, all are risk factors for tubal compromise.
3. High quantity of low quality eggs
This situation is more complex. Many couples, particularly when women are over thirty-five years, increasingly worry about egg quality.
On the face of it, IVF would not seem to be all that beneficial; simply placing a sperm inside the egg does not increase its quality. Ninety-three percent of first trimester losses are related to embryo quality, 90% of which come back to egg. So, egg quality is a serious concern in any fertility setting.
The advantage that IVF can provide is this: Numbers. With high-dose fertility drugs, instead of the two to four eggs we will often encourage people to have intercourse or inseminations with, we would be aiming for ten, fifteen or twenty eggs with IVF.
And so it is a numbers game: If egg quality is a concern, and egg quantity is high, then IVF has a superb chance of being more beneficial than any other therapy for the shear advantages that come when ten to twenty eggs are fertilized at a time. It is like one to two years of trying naturally all focused into a single cycle.
And so when is IVF less successful?
Arguably, IVF is less successful when none of the elements above are present: If egg quality is a potential concern, but egg quantity is low, with all other parameters being normal, then IVF is unlikely to be of great benefit. When the issue is related only to uterine structure or implantation, IVF is unlikely to be successful, and if the issue is related to the couple’s overall health, IVF is unlikely to be successful.
IVF, therefore, may be our gold standard of therapy, but it is not for everybody. Still, if any of the three diagnoses above apply to your situation, and it has been a number of months of trying with other means, then IVF may well be considered as a reasonable option.