Male infertility - the facts

Many couples throughout the UK struggle to have the family they so desperately want, and in some of those instances a low sperm count will be to blame.

Male infertility

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If you are worried about possible fertility problems or would like to learn more about what could be causing a low sperm count, here's what you need to know.

What is classified as a low sperm count?
A low sperm count is defined as fewer than 20 million sperm per millilitre of semen, and this, along with poor quality sperm, accounts for infertility in around 20 per cent of couples. According to the NHS, up to a fifth of young men have a low sperm count, and the number is growing.

What causes a low sperm count?
There are a number of conditions that can cause a low sperm count, including a hormone imbalance, physical problems with the genital tract, previous testicular surgery, chemotherapy drugs, sexually transmitted infections, and congenital defects.

But increasing numbers of men are suffering from infertility problems, and research suggests lifestyle choices may shoulder some of the blame.

A recent study at Harvard University found that men who spend at least 20 hours a week sitting in front of the TV had a sperm count 44 per cent lower than those who were more active. Previous research has also pointed the finger at smoking and alcohol as reasons for a reduced sperm count.

However, in many cases the cause of a low sperm count remains undetermined.

How can I preserve my sperm count?
Given that there is evidence to suggest that a couch potato lifestyle could result in a lower sperm count, regular exercise is recommended for any man wishing to keep his sperm in good shape. In fact, the scientists behind the Harvard study found that men who took 15 hours or more of moderate to vigorous exercise each week boasted a 73 per cent higher sperm count than those who slumped in front of the telly.

Obesity is also thought to contribute to male infertility, so exercise, along with a healthy, balanced diet, offers the added benefit of keeping the weight off.

To go hand in hand with a healthy lifestyle, it is recommended to quit smoking, as tobacco has been shown to reduce sperm motility, while drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol not only reduces sperm count, but also quality.

If you are concerned about infertility, your GP should be the first point of call. Generally speaking, a doctor will not wait until you and your partner have been trying unsuccessfully to conceive for a year, but many are sympathetic and will recommend fertility tests for both parties after six months of trying for a baby.

The NHS advises that one in ten men will show an abnormal result on the first test, but a second test, usually done three months later, may show a different reading.

If a problem shows up, you and your partner will be referred to a fertility specialist for help and advice, whereby assisted conception techniques can be explained and discussed in detail.