SpermCheck is Here!

February 21st, 2012 § 13 comments § permalink

SpermCheck has arrived and is filling the shelves of your neighborhood drug store as I write.  What is it?  It’s an over-the-counter FDA approved home male fertility test.  What does it do?  It tells you whether you have more than 20 million sperm per milliliter of semen.

That’s a good thing, right?  Generally, yes.  It’s good to know whether you have a reasonable amount of sperm, which SpermCheck says is 20 million per milliliter.  The problem is in the yes-or-no nature of the test and in picking the number 20 million.  As I described in this post, you can get a woman pregnant with sperm counts less than 20 million per milliliter and have problems with more than that amount.  The numbers of swimmers don’t tell the whole story.

So, will SpermCheck help you?  For most men, probably.  Having a positive or negative result will point them in the right direction.  But for the handful of guys that get the OK from the test when they have a problem or for those that get the thumbs-down from the test that are fertile, it’s not telling the whole story.  According to the manufacturer, the guys that are getting it wrong is about one in twenty.  If you’re OK with that, great–if not, you may want to see a doctor.

Needles and Sperm

July 20th, 2011 § Comments Off on Needles and Sperm § permalink

Acupuncture chart 300px

A reader recently asked whether acupuncture helps sperm.

I have to admit I’m a Western thinker, but that doesn’t mean that I automatically dismiss anything Eastern. It does mean that, as is true of any treatment, I will want to see evidence of effectiveness before I believe that it works. The most compelling proof will include:

  • A comparison of those patients who are treated and those who are not,
  • Patients (and preferably doctors) who don’t know which patients are being treated and which are not,
  • Statistics that demonstrate the chances that the conclusion is wrong,
  • More than one study that says it is right.

A number of published studies report how sperm fares with acupuncture.  One, published in Fertility and Sterility in 2009, described the use of a special device that either performed acupuncture or just looked like it did, so that patients did not know whether or not they were being treated. Comparing men who were actually treated to those who weren’t, the authors could say with around 95% confidence that motility after acupuncture increased about 10%. The authors didn’t observe an increase in sperm count, and semen volume decreased a little.

If effective, acupuncture would be a great treatment for men who need to improve motility. But first,  I’d like to see a study similar to the one done in 2009, but from different investigators and showing similar results. Until then,  I’d say acupuncture looks promising but needs a bit more study.

The New WHO

June 9th, 2010 § 13 comments § permalink

A first test of male fertility is the semen analysis.  You do your thing, and a technician counts the sperm, sees how they’re moving, what they look like and whether they’re alive.  For decades, the World Health Organization has published criteria for these numbers to alert a man that he might have a problem when it comes to impregnating a woman.  Until recently, the numbers were a consensus of expert opinion, but in the latest edition, the WHO criteria changed substantially.

What the WHO is currently doing is to dispense with expert opinion, and just lay the numbers out for all to see.  Table II from the paper shows the numbers for men from couples who conceived within a year.  Take sperm concentration, for example.  For centile 5, the sperm concentration is 15 million per ml.  That means that only 5% of couples where the man had 15 million/ml sperm or less conceived within a year.  For centile 50, the concentration was 73 million/ml, meaning that 50% of couples conceived within a year when the sperm concentration was up to that number.  You get the idea.

The problem is that people like cutoffs, and in the latest edition, the WHO chose centile 5 as the line in the sand.  It’s a good number for thinking that below it, couple infertility likely involves the male.  But keep in mind that at centile 10, only 10% of couples conceived within a year.  In other words, having sperm numbers above the centile 5 cutoff doesn’t guarantee that the sperm are trouble free.

Frankly, I think the WHO numbers are most useful to get a ballpark idea of how fertility may be related to what’s inside the semen.  I prefer the approach David Guzick and colleagues took, where they applied a statistical method called Classification and Regression Tree (CART) analysis to sperm, which gives two cutoffs in a “green light, yellow light, red light” fashion.  For example, CART analysis came up with 13.5 million/ml and 48 million/ml for sperm concentration.  At 13.5 million/ml sperm or less, the “red light,” couple infertility likely involves the male.  At 48 million/ml or more, your sperm probably are “green light” good to go.  Between 13.5 million/ml and 48 million/ml, the “yellow light,” sperm may or may not be the problem.  You can find the Guzick CART cutoffs here.

A lot of people, including doctors and fertility specialists, are confused about the new WHO cutoffs.  Expect a little consternation about them for a bit.

WHO Table II Distribution of values, lower reference limits and their 95% CI for semen parameters from fertile men whose partners had a time-to-pregnancy of 12 months or less

N Centiles

2.5 (95% CI) 5 (95% CI) 10 25 50 75 90 95 97.5

Semen volume (ml) 1941 1.2 (1.0–1.3) 1.5 (1.4–1.7) 2 2.7 3.7 4.8 6 6.8 7.6
Sperm concentration (106/ml) 1859 9 (8–11) 15 (12–16) 22 41 73 116 169 213 259
Total number (106/Ejaculate) 1859 23 (18–29) 39 (33–46) 69 142 255 422 647 802 928
Total motility (PR + NP, %)* 1781 34 (33–37) 40 (38–42) 45 53 61 69 75 78 81
Progressive motility (PR, %)* 1780 28 (25–29) 32 (31–34) 39 47 55 62 69 72 75
Normal forms (%) 1851 3 (2.0–3.0) 4 (3.0–4.0) 5.5 9 15 24.5 36 44 48
Vitality (%) 428 53 (48–56) 58 (55–63) 64 72 79 84 88 91 92

*PR, progressive motility (WHO, 1999 grades a + b); NP, non-progressive motility (WHO, 1999 grade c).