If not IVF, then what? Fertility treatments explained

It is estimated that as many as 1 in 6 couples have difficulty becoming pregnant. Fertility problems can take a big emotional toll, but they are not insurmountable by any means. With ground-breaking advances in research and technology, there are now numerous options for individuals and couples wanting to start a family.

In vitro fertilisation (IVF) is the most widely known fertility treatment, but it is not the only option available to help couples with fertility issues. This is due to the fact that there are many different reasons why an individual or couple may be experiencing fertility problems and treatment should be tailored accordingly. Thus, fertility treatment actually encompasses quite a wide range of methods, each of which can help people to overcome specific challenges and ultimately, conceive. We explain the different options below, including when they might be suitable.

First-line treatments

Ovulation induction

Ovulation induction may be recommended for women who are not ovulating regularly or who are not ovulating at all, and is commonly used for those suffering from polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).

As its name suggests, ovulation induction involves the woman taking medication to increase the level of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) that causes ovulation. These medications may be in the form of tablets (clomiphene or letrozole) or direct injections of FSH. This stimulates the growth of ovarian follicles (fluid-filled sacs containing an egg). Once the follicles are large enough, another hormone is then given to release the egg from the follicle. Couples are advised to have intercourse at this time to increase their chances of conceiving.

Intrauterine insemination (IUI)

Intrauterine insemination (also known as artificial insemination) may be considered when a couple has difficulty having intercourse. It may also be appropriate for women with scarring or defects of the cervix that prevent sperm penetration, and for men with mild reductions in either sperm count or sperm motility (i.e. sperm that don’t move properly) where concentrating the semen sample and placing it in the uterus is likely to be of benefit. IUI may be used in combination with medications that stimulate ovulation – this combination can increase the chance of pregnancy in some cases.

During a treatment cycle, patients are monitored closely with blood tests and ultrasounds. At the time of ovulation, sperm are placed directly through the woman’s cervix and into her uterus (womb) using a long, thin plastic tube that is similar to a straw (hence, the name artificial insemination).

Laboratory treatments

In vitro fertilisation (IVF)

IVF is a form of assisted reproductive technology (ART) in which eggs are retrieved from the body of a woman and combined with sperm outside the body to achieve fertilisation. If this is successful and the fertilised egg continues to develop into an embryo, it is transferred back into the uterus (womb) in the hope that it will implant and grow, thereby achieving a pregnancy.

Intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI)

ICSI is a technique where a single sperm is directly injected into an egg to achieve fertilisation. This technique may be recommended when the male partner in a couple has been diagnosed with fertility issues such as low sperm count, abnormal sperm morphology (shape) or motility (movement), has had a previous vasectomy or an unsuccessful vasectomy reversal. The ‘best’ sperm – based on size, shape and movement – is selected for the ICSI procedure.

Sperm retrieval procedures

Some men have no sperm in their semen (a condition known as azoospermia) due to a sperm production problem or a blockage that prevents the sperm from getting into the semen. These men may need to have sperm taken directly from the testis or the epididymis (a coiled tube that stores sperm and transports it from the testis).

  • Testicular sperm aspiration (TESA) is done by inserting a needle into the testis and taking a small amount of material from the seminiferous tubules – a network of tiny tubes where sperm is produced. The procedure is done using local anaesthesia in an operating theatre.
  • Percutaneous epididymal sperm aspiration (PESA) can be an option for men who have obstructive azoospermia from a previous vasectomy or infection. Under local anaesthesia, a small needle is inserted into the epididymis to extract sperm. PESA is also usually performed in an operating theatre.
  • Microdissection TESE (microTESE) may be used for men who have a sperm production problem. This procedure is done under general anaesthetic. The testis is first opened with a small incision, then an operating microscope is used to identify the seminiferous tubules most likely to contain sperm and take tissue samples from them.
Pre-implantation genetic testing (PGT)

PGT is a way to reduce the risk of an individual or a couple passing on a specific genetic or chromosomal abnormality to their child. It may also be used to check for genetic problems in older women (e.g. over the age of 38 years), women who have experienced several miscarriages, or cases of repeated IVF failure.

In PGT, embryos are produced through the usual IVF process and then cells taken from the embryo are tested for genetic conditions. If the embryo is unaffected, it is then transferred to the woman’s uterus.

Egg or sperm freezing

There are two main reasons for freezing eggs. Some women need to freeze their eggs for medical reasons such as impaired ovarian function or impending chemotherapy or radiotherapy for cancer. Other women choose to freeze their eggs because they want to give themselves the option to have children in later years.

A man may be advised to freeze his sperm if he is about to undergo treatment for cancer, or if he has decided to have a vasectomy but may potentially want to have children later on. Men also can freeze sperm prior to either IUI or IVF if they cannot be present on the day scheduled for the respective ART procedure.

Donor treatment

Donor insemination

Donor insemination may be used as part of IVF for a single woman or for women in a same-sex relationship. The process is the same as artificial insemination, but the sperm used is from a donor rather than a male partner.

Donor insemination may be considered when the male partner does not produce sperm (or the sperm is abnormal) or when there is a high risk of the man passing on an illness or abnormality to a child.

Donor eggs

Donor eggs may be an option when a woman is unable to produce eggs or her eggs are of a low quality. This may be due to age or premature ovarian failure (a condition in which a woman stops producing eggs earlier than usual).

Donor eggs may also be appropriate in cases of recurrent miscarriage or if there is a high risk of the woman passing on an illness or abnormality.

Donor embryos

In some cases, some people choose to donate frozen embryos they no longer need. Treatment using these donated embryos may be suitable for a person or a couple who need both donor sperm and donor eggs.

What is the best option for you?

If you would like advice about the next steps to take on your fertility journey, you can make an appointment with one of our fertility specialists by calling Newlife IVF on (03) 8080 8933 or by booking online via our appointments page. We’ll complete a comprehensive assessment before explaining the options available to you and your partner.