Many patients will learn pretty quickly that effectively communicating with their medical team is an important part of their treatment success. With ever-changing treatment protocols that are continually being optimized to provide for the best outcome, a firm grasp of some frequently used medical terminology can clear up some confusion and help you feel more empowered and confident, and hopefully eliminate miscommunication with your team.
Commonly Confused Medical Terminology
Follicle vs Egg vs Embryo: While all three of these terms mean very different things, they do all represent the evolution of the follicle—the starting point of all eggs and embryos—which is likely why many people confuse them. Here is a break down in the differences between these three terms:
- Follicle: A fluid-filled sac in the ovary that contains a single egg released at ovulation. You cannot have an egg without first having a follicle. As the follicle grows through the month so does the egg inside. When undergoing treatment, such as intrauterine insemination (IUI) or in vitro fertilization (IVF), you medical team will closely monitor the number and size of follicles growing within your ovaries. The goal, especially with IVF, is to grow several multiple follicles as opposed to the single follicle or two that would be developed in a natural, or no stimulation, cycle or IUI cycle. It is important to note that while most follicles contain eggs, it is not uncommon for some follicles to be empty or for the egg to not be mature enough to fertilize.
- Egg: The egg grown within a follicle is a single cell with the female’s genetic material. Once ovulation occurs, the egg is released into the Fallopian tube. If sperm is introduced at this point, it may result in fertilization. For patients undergoing IVF treatment, eggs are developed during the stimulation phase and retrieved prior to ovulation during a procedure called an egg retrieval. At the conclusion of the procedure your medical team will inform you as to the number of eggs retrieved and the number that are mature. Other accurate terms for an egg include oocyte, ovum, and gamete.
- Embryo: Once a mature egg is fertilized with the sperm it becomes an embryo. An embryo is the earliest stages of fetal development. In an IVF cycle, an embryologist monitors the developing embryo in an environment that mimics the Fallopian tubes; on the 5th day of development the physician will transfer the embryo into the mother’s uterus.
Semen vs Sperm: The terms semen and sperm are very closely related and often mistakenly interchanged. The distinction between the two, however, is very important, especially when evaluating couples with male factor infertility. Here are the key distinctions between semen and sperm:
- Semen: Semen is the fluid that is ejaculated at the point of orgasm. The ejaculate consists of secretions from the seminal vesicles, prostate gland, as well as sperm from the testicle. Semen provides nourishment and protection for the sperm and a medium in which the sperm can travel to the woman’s vagina. Semen may also refer to the entire ejaculate, including the sperm used in the fertilization of the female partner’s egg. Whether initiating a semen analysis for diagnostic purposes or undergoing treatment, the male partner will need to provide a semen sample to the SGF clinical team. It is important to note that not all semen contains sperm.
- Sperm: Sperm are the male reproductive cells, also known as gametes. Medically referred to as spermatozoa, sperm are mobile cells that fertilize eggs. The sperm that fertilizes an egg provides the genetic information from the male partner and determines an embryo’s gender. The sperm-rich fluid that the testicle contributes to semen is actually only about 5% of the overall volume that is normally ejaculated.
Embryo Transfer vs Implantation: Patients undergoing IVF treatment with their own eggs or those of a donor will have an embryo transfer. This step is often incorrectly referred to as “having the embryo implanted into the uterus.” The mix up is easy to make as implantation is a natural phenomenon that occurs a few days after the embryo transfer. Here are the differences between these two steps in the treatment process:
- Embryo Transfer: During IVF treatment, after fertilization has occurred in the embryology laboratory and the embryo has developed for about 5 days, the embryo transfer occurs. During this procedure the physician will use a thin, flexible catheter and the guidance of an ultrasound to place the embryo into the uterus.
- Implantation: Generally, 4 to 5 days after the physician transfer the embryo into the uterus implantation occurs. This is the natural process where the growing embryo embeds itself into tissue so it can establish contact with the mother’s blood supply for nourishment. Implantation usually occurs in the lining of the uterus; however, in an ectopic pregnancy it may occur elsewhere in the body such as the Fallopian tubes. This process is naturally occurring as there is no medical intervention that can reliably be used to force implantation to take place.
Intrauterine Insemination (IUI) vs In Vitro Fertilization (IVF): IUI and IVF are two of the most common forms of fertility treatment, with many of the same phases and end goal. Similarities with both treatments include:
- Development of an egg(s)
- Introduction of sperm in the hopes that fertilization of the egg will occur
- Once fertilization has taken place the fertilized egg will then grow and develop into an embryo
- The embryo will find itself in the uterus where implantation—the act of the embryo embedding itself into the uterine lining—will occur and mark the start of a viable pregnancy
The difference between these two treatments is that, in an IUI, each step occurs within the body while in IVF some of the steps, specifically the fertilization and embryo development, occur outside of the body in an embryology laboratory. The names of each treatment explains it all:
- Intrauterine insemination = insemination in the uterus
- In vitro fertilization = fertilization outside the body (in vitro means “in an artificial environment outside a living organism”)
Medical Terminology Commonly Used Interchangeably among Physicians and Nurses
Some patients may notice that they’re not the only ones who seem to use terms interchangeably, making communication a little confusing. In most cases, for medical professionals, it is because there are sometimes a couple of different ways to say the same thing, which understandably may lead to confusion for patients. To help clarify here are a few different terms you may hear your physician or nurse use that essentially mean the same thing.
Day 3 Fertility Testing vs Baseline Tests: Day 3 testing, which can actually be completed between days 2 and 4 of your cycle, and baseline testing both look at the female partner’s hormone levels at the start of her menstrual cycle. The results of these tests can help the physician determine the patient’s ovarian reserve (number of eggs).
Sonogram vs Ultrasound: Both sonogram and ultrasound refer to the same test. Diagnostic sonograms or ultrasounds use high-frequency sound waves to create an image of internal body parts. During fertility treatment, ultrasound testing is very common and your physician may utilize during:
- Diagnostic testing
- Treatment cycle monitoring
- Egg retrieval
- Embryo transfer
- Obstetric ultrasounds to confirm pregnancy
Water Sonogram vs Saline Sonogram vs Sonohysterogram: These three tests all describe the same thing, a procedure that uses an ultrasound to detect masses in your uterus that may be blocking your Fallopian tubes or abnormalities of the uterus. Your physician will often use this test if he or she suspects a uterine abnormality, which can after receiving abnormal results from an hysterosalpingogram (HSG) or following recurrent pregnancy loss , which could indicate an anatomical abnormality in the uterus.
Whether you’re new to fertility treatment or not, clear lines of communication with your medical team will help keep you from feeling overwhelmed by the process. If ever you’re not sure about what medical terminology means, don’t hesitate to ask your clinical team for clarification. They are here to guide you through your treatment each step of the way.
If you would like to schedule an appointment with a fertility specialist, please speak with one of our New Patient Liaisons at 877-971-7755.