From the blissful simplicity of spontaneous, unprotected sex to the scientific complexity of in vitro fertilization…and everything in between.
It used to be that the road from couple to family was pretty straightforward. But in the last few decades medical technology has devised ever more ingenious ways to help couples who’ve been frustrated by the old-fashioned method. Now the path to parenthood may lead from the bed to the clinic to the laboratory … and even beyond. Here’s a progression of the roadways to conception, from the least technological (the scientific equivalent of a sleepy country lane) to the high-tech superhighway.
Low-Tech Ways to Conceive
Start by having unprotected sex
Ditch the contraceptives and relax. Remember that most couples will have no trouble conceiving naturally. Set a time limit—usually a year (but ask your ob/gyn for specific recommendations) for “trying” before you consider consulting a fertility specialist. Women over 35 may want to see a fertility expert after six months. According to Sherman J. Silber, M.D., head of The Infertility Center of St. Louis and author of How to Get Pregnant: The Classic Guide to Overcoming Infertility (Little, Brown and Company; revised edition 2005), there’s no reason to see a fertility expert earlier, unless you or your partner have a known risk factor for fertility problems, such as a history of pelvic infections or a past vasectomy.
Try an ovulation monitor
If a few months of unprotected sex haven’t led to pregnancy, and you’re not ready to consult a specialist, try using an ovulation detector to time your intercourse for your most fertile times. These fertility monitors are available over-the-counter at most drugstores. While there are a variety on the market, the most common are ovulation test sticks, which work by detecting high levels of LH (luteinizing hormone, which triggers the release of the egg from the ovary) in urine. The test detects an LH surge the day before you ovulate, meaning you need to have sex right away if you want to become pregnant that cycle. Other monitors work by taking daily temperature measurements, assessing microscopic patterns in saliva, or monitoring chloride levels in perspiration.
Take the next step: see a doctor for testing
“If your deadline passes and you’re still not pregnant, schedule fertility testing for you and your partner. Contrary to popular belief, male infertility is just as common as female,” says Laurel Stadtmauer, M.D., assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at The Jones Reproductive Institute at Eastern Virginia Medical School.
Depending on the results of your tests, the next step in your quest for conception may be treatment for a detected problem. Doctors will usually start with the least invasive (and usually lowest-tech) options first, before bringing out the “big guns.” Super-high-tech treatments like in vitro fertilization (IVF) and embryo freezing get lots of publicity, but 85 percent of patients can be treated with simple medication or surgical repair of reproductive organs.
High-Tech Ways to Conceive
Simple medication for women
Clomiphene citrate (brand names Clomid, Serophene) is a relatively inexpensive drug that can be used in patients with long cycles where ovulation is unpredictable, and in women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) who don’t ovulate at all. Clomiphene works by tricking the hypothalamus and pituitary into “thinking” there’s an estrogen deficiency. In response, they produce extra FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) and LH—which stimulates follicle production. Clomiphene can also be effective in women with luteal phase defect, in which the low levels of progesterone are produced by the follicle after ovulation—leading to miscarriage. The medication is often used with IUI (intrauterine semination with sperm that has been “washed” in the lab to increase its fertilizing potential). Recently it’s been found that the success rate for some women with PCOS who don’t respond to clomiphene alone may be improved by adding the diabetes drug metformin (Glucophage).
There are several potent injectable hormonal drugs that cause superovulation—the stimulating of several follicles in the ovary during the same cycle. They are used in preparation for IVF (see below), but they can also be effective for women who don’t ovulate and for those with unexplained infertility. These medications include genetically engineered versions of FSH (Gonal-f and Follistim), and a combination of LH and FSH (brand names, Repronex and Menopur), which is made from the urine of menopausal women. Since the drugs “override” the natural hormonal messages from the pituitary gland and reproductive organs, they must be combined with other hormonal drugs such as hCG (a form of LH that triggers ovulation). The injections are given for seven to 12 days, and the follicles are carefully monitored with ultrasound to help reduce the odds of multiple births.
Surgical repair for women
Tubal ligation (“tube-tying” to prevent pregnancy) can often be successfully reversed with surgery. While many surgeons still do this procedure as regular abdominal surgery, a few are now doing the repairs laparoscopically. Done in the hospital under anesthesia, laparoscopy involves inserting a narrow tube containing a tiny video camera through a small incision in the abdomen. Once the surgeon has examined the pelvic organs, additional small incisions are made so surgical instruments can be used to put the tubes back together again. Laparoscopy can also be used to remove scar tissue blocking the tubes. However, if there is severe scarring from surgery or past infection, laparoscopy is only about 15 percent effective. In these cases, IVF is the best option.
Surgical repair for men
“Vasectomy [male surgical sterilization] can also be reversed with microsurgery,” says Dr. Silber. The operation is almost always successful, meaning that tests show sperm present in the ejaculate afterward. (However the rate for achieving pregnancy is lower.) Microsurgery can also be used to remove blockages of the epididymis (the long tube connecting the testicles and sperm duct).
If you’ve made it to this point and still aren’t pregnant, it may be time to harness the vast powers of high-tech medicine to help you. These are the techniques that make the news, and the techniques that are helping more and more couples to become pregnant.