Infertility is a fairly common medical condition that affects over 6 million Americans (15% of couples of reproductive age), with over 9 million women currently using infertility services. It is typically defined as the inability to conceive and become pregnant after 12 months of regular, unprotected sex, regardless of cause. Although if a woman is over 35, after only about 6 months of trying without any success, fertility problems can start to be suspected. A broader view of infertility includes not being able to carry a pregnancy to term, in other words if the woman suffers from repeated miscarriages.
Infertility is not the same as sterility. Being sterile means that it is impossible for a person to conceive a child. A diagnosis of infertility simply means that becoming pregnant may be a challenge rather than an impossibility.
Conception is a complicated process that depends upon many factors. First a woman must be able to release an egg from one of her two ovaries (ovulation). Second, the egg must be able to travel through a fallopian tube that is unblocked, towards the uterus, to reach the man’s sperm for fertilization. Third, the man must be able to produce a significant number of healthy sperm that have the ability to penetrate and fertilize the egg when they meet up in the fallopian tube. Fourth, the fertilized egg must be able to implant itself inside the uterus, attaching to the endometrial lining. Lastly, the fertilized egg must be able to adequately grow and develop without any interference inside the uterus to continue to full term. When just one of these factors is impaired, infertility can result.
If a couple has been trying to conceive for more than a year, there’s a good chance that something may be interfering with their reproductive function. Infertility may be due to a single cause or a combination of factors that may prevent a pregnancy from occurring or continuing. Infertility can be male or female related. About 1/3 of infertility is due to problems with the man (male factors) and 1/3 is due to problems with the woman (female factors). Other cases are due to problems in both partners or are due to unknown causes that cannot be explained.
Infertility has a strong impact on self-esteem and often creates one of the most distressing life crises that a couple has ever experienced together. Suddenly their lives, which may have been well planned and successful, seem out of control. Coping with the multitude of medical decisions and the uncertainties that infertility brings can create great emotional upheaval for most couples. Facing the disappointment of not becoming pregnant month after month can lead to depression and significant feelings of loss. These feelings are perfectly normal responses, which everyone has as they pursue infertility treatment. For many, the life crisis of infertility eventually proves to be an opportunity for life-enhancing personal growth.