A Fix for One Cause of Male Infertility

Blocking off varicose veins in the scrotum can often make the difference.

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Hearing about varicoceles, or dilated veins in the scrotum, may make you cringe. But as many as 16 percent of men—even young men—have this type of varicose vein, a common cause of low sperm count. The condition can cause testicles to shrink and soften, and can feel, as the Mayo Clinic so delicately puts it, "like a bag of worms" above the testicle.

Pleasant, right?

While the enlarged veins are harmless in most cases, they can cause real trouble if you're aiming to become a father. Doctors have noticed that about 40 percent of men who are infertile have varicoceles. It's still a bit murky as to how exactly the condition damages sperm, but researchers speculate that the enlarged veins hamper the circulation of properly oxygenated blood.

So, would-be dads should know that blocking off the offending veins with a minimally invasive procedure can apparently correct infertility problems among nearly one third of men plagued by the problem. The outpatient embolization procedure involves snaking a hook-shaped catheter and guide wire through a vein in the groin to release a foaming agent that blocks problem veins off. That sounds awful, but it's far more comfortable than some of the more invasive alternatives, says Sebastian Flacke, an associate professor of radiology at Tufts University whose study of the procedure is being published today. All the men he followed had a history of infertility for at least a year; 26 percent went on to impregnate their partners after the procedure.

At this point, however, it's still fairly rare for men having infertility problems to get this treatment—or any other one—for varicoceles. "Most of the time we're aggressively treating the female side of infertility even when the male may be on the low side of fertility or even infertile," says Flacke.

My colleague Deborah Kotz has written before about what men can do to improve their fertility.