A standard fertility evaluation includes physical exams and medical and sexual histories of both partners. Men undergo a semen analysis that evaluates sperm count and sperm movement. "We look at the percent that are moving and how they are moving -- are the sperm sluggish? Are they wandering?" says Robert G. Brzyski, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. "Often, it's not possible to identify a specific reason for a sperm disorder," he says. "But there is new recognition that very low sperm or no sperm may be related to genetics -- an abnormality of the Y chromosome."
For women, doctors first check to see whether ovulation is occurring. This can be determined and monitored through blood tests that detect hormones, ultrasound exams of the ovaries, or an ovulation home test kit. "An irregular menstrual pattern would make us suspicious of an ovulation problem, but it's also possible for a woman with regular periods to have an ovulation disorder," Brzyski says.
The good, if not great, news is that the latest advances in infertility treatment have made it possible for more people than ever before to become parents. The bad news is that growing numbers of couples may be jumping the gun and seeking infertility treatments without giving Mother Nature a chance. Infertility treatments, such as drugs that stimulate ovulation, are not without their risks -- namely a risk of multiple pregnancies, which can be dangerous for moms and babies.
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If a woman is ovulating, doctors then move to a standard test called the hysterosalpingogram, a type of X-ray of the fallopian tubes and uterus. This test involves placing a radiographic dye solution into the uterine cavity. Multiple X-rays are taken. If the fallopian tubes are open, the dye will flow through the tubes and be visible in the abdominal cavity. If the fallopian tubes are blocked, the dye will be retained in the uterus or fallopian tubes, depending on the location of the blockage.
Other tests give doctors more information. For example, ultrasound can be used to examine the female reproductive structures. Hysterosonography is a more complicated type of ultrasound that involves putting salt water (saline) into the uterus during an ultrasound exam. "This is more likely to reveal structural abnormalities than regular vaginal sonography will show alone," Brzyski says. One such abnormality that hysterosonography may identify is fibroid tumors, which may distort the shape of the uterine cavity. There is also a procedure called a sonoHSG using saline and bubbles which will evaluate the cavity of the uterus as well as the fallopian tubes.