by Dr. Eric Levens

So let’s get started at the beginning! Many people are surprised to learn that infertility is a medical disease, defined as the inability to conceive after 12 months of unprotected intercourse (after 6 months for women ≥35 years of age).

For many having difficulties conceiving, one of the greatest hurdles is making the first step: Scheduling an appointment to see an infertility specialist. This is understandable, given so few other events in life are so deeply personal and, no-doubt, fundamental to our sense of self as our ability to reproduce.

As a result, making that first appointment to see an infertility doctor often seems like a gigantic leap. If you’re contemplating taking this step, it might be comforting to know the things that would likely occur at your first visit.

Your First Visit: What Happens?

Infertility may be the result of many different conditions, all ending up in that same frustrating situation: no pregnancy. To get a better understanding of your individual condition, some initial testing may be required.

For some women, it may be that ovulation (producing an egg) isn’t occurring on a regular basis. This may be the result of several conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or be due to an accelerated or age-related depletion of the eggs in the ovary. For others, ovulation may be occurring regularly, but the Fallopian tubes are blocked which means the ovulated egg isn’t getting fertilized by sperm in the tube. Another very common cause of infertility is that there are insufficient numbers of normal sperm to achieve a pregnancy.

At your initial visit, your physician wants to determine whether there are things in your or your partner’s history that may herald an underlying medical condition that is presenting as infertility that may require further evaluation. The next steps can be largely broken down into evaluating the following: 1) the ovaries; 2) the Fallopian tubes; 3) the sperm count.

Checking Your Ovaries

Without bogging you down with too many details, ovarian function is controlled by an area of the brain called the pituitary. The pituitary produces several hormones, but the one most critical to fertility is follicle stimulating hormone (FSH). This hormone stimulates the ovary to develop a follicle that contains an egg. If FSH is elevated too early in the menstrual cycle, it may indicate that the ovary is having a hard time responding to this signal. One way to test the function of the ovary is to determine the FSH hormone on day 3 of the menstrual cycle along with assessing the amount of estrogen (produced by the ovary) in the blood.

These hormones give an indication of how the ovaries are functioning, something we refer to as the “ovarian reserve” which is the quality of the pool of eggs within the ovary.

Checking Your Fallopian Tubes

Another important test is called a hysterosalpingogram. While this test may sound intimidating, it is simply an x-ray of the outline of the uterine cavity (where implantation of an embryo occurs) and the Fallopian tubes to determine if the tubes are open. If the Fallopian tubes are blocked, then in vitro fertilization (IVF) would likely be the most successful option for achieving pregnancy.

Checking His Semen

A semen analysis is another important component of the initial evaluation to determine whether there is a male partner component resulting in infertility and if so, whether it is treatable. Fortunately, with the development of techniques in the last two decades, the sperm from men with some of the most severe sperm abnormalities can be used to achieve a pregnancy. Once the results of these tests are available, an Infertility specialist can recommend an appropriate treatment for you.