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Infertility: It's Not My Fault

Why do men have such a hard time accepting a low sperm count?
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In Tom's case the tests revealed two pieces of bad news.. First, his sperm count was only 10 million, making him statistically infertile. What's more, an analysis of his microscopic swimmers showed a high percentage of malformations. His Neiman-Marcus body, it seemed, was pumping out Kmart-quality sperm.

Eventually, Tom was diagnosed with a common cause of low sperm quality -- varicoceles of the veins of the testicles (similar to varicose veins of the legs). When one or more of the veins becomes inflamed, Lipshultz explains, the valves get worn out, forcing blood to run in the wrong direction -- into the testicles instead of away.

As blood overheats the testicles, the overly warm temperatures damage or destroy sperm cells. Sperm thrive in temperatures several degrees cooler than body temperature, which is why the testicles are housed in the scrotum. It's also why doctors tell men who are trying to conceive to stay out of hot tubs (as well as quit drinking and smoking). "Nicotine, alcohol, and over-heating are toxic to sperm," says Lipshultz.

Luckily, in the case of varicoceles, doctors can tie off the damaged veins. After the procedure, which requires anesthesia but can be done at outpatient clinics, about 70% of patients show improved sperm count and quality. Of these, 40% go on to become fathers.

Happily, Tom was among the lucky 40%. His long and sometimes embarrassing odyssey from gynecologist's office to the operating table was never easy. But he got a wonderful reward for his efforts: a beautiful 6 pound, 2 ounce, baby girl.

Michael Alvear is an Atlanta-based writer. Besides WebMD and other publications, his work has been published in The Los Angeles Times and the Internet magazine Salon.com.

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