Every year, tens of thousands of couples in the United States conceive a child with the help of fertility treatments. In fact, since the first “test tube baby” was born in 1978, more than five million children have been born worldwide with the help of assisted reproductive technology. And that number is growing.
The ability to shift fertilization from the bedroom to a lab dish has revolutionized reproduction and has rewritten the metaphorical “Birds and the Bees” story. But is in vitro fertilization (IVF) safe?
Let’s start with the basics.
Assisted reproductive technology includes all fertility treatments in which both eggs and sperm are handled. In IVF, ovulation is induced with injectable fertility medications so that multiple eggs are produced. Healthy sperm are combined with the eggs in a laboratory to produce embryos. Three to five days after the egg retrieval procedure, one or more embryos are transferred to the uterus through the vagina, or they may be cryopreserved (frozen and stored) for transfer at a later time.
In IVF, the sperm may come from the woman’s partner or from a donor. The sperm may be retrieved and then frozen for later use in IVF. The egg also may come from a donor. Alternatively, a patient’s eggs that have been previously frozen can be used.
Sometimes, one sperm may be injected into each egg in a technique called intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI). ICSI is often recommended if there is a problem with sperm quality or quantity. In ICSI, only a single healthy sperm is needed for each egg.
You should consider IVF if you fall into one or more of the following categories:
- Men with infertility factors
- Women over the age of 38
- Women with blocked fallopian tubes
- Women with a history of pelvic infections
- Women with moderate to severe endometriosis
- Women with reduced ovarian reserve as indicated by a simple blood test
Many couples choose IVF because it helps them conceive more quickly. Other benefits include the ability to use frozen eggs and/or sperm as well as donor eggs.
New techniques make fertility treatments safer.
In an effort to improve patient safety, ovulation stimulation protocols have undergone significant changes over the past few years. For example, many fertility specialists today offer primary freeze-all cycles with an alternative type of trigger medication called a gonadotropin releasing hormone agonist, which significantly reduces complications associated with high-dose fertility medications, such as bloating and abdominal pain due to enlarged ovaries—known as ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome.
The skill of the doctor and medical advances in egg retrieval, culture and freezing techniques, and genetic screening also play a role in success rates. Together, these advances now allow doctors to transfer only one or two embryos in a majority of IVF cases, which has been a major factor in reducing the occurrence of multiple pregnancy over recent years.
Data shows that transferring a single embryo during assisted reproduction not only lowers the risk of maternal complications associated with multiple pregnancies, but also has a positive effect on the health of the newborn baby.
Study indicates low complication rates.
The big news is that infertility treatments are now considered a low-risk procedure, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2015. The researchers found the risk of complications was low for both women using their own eggs as well as donor-assisted procedures.
The decade-long study, which spanned the years 2000 to 2011, looked at possible problems within 12 weeks of cycle initiation, including infection, bleeding, anesthesia-related complications, hospitalization, and death.
Among the nearly 1.2 million ART cycles where women used their own eggs, the most commonly reported complication was ovarian hyperstimulation. The researchers also noted that the rates of all other complications remained below 10 per 10,000 cycles.
Talk to a specialist!
Infertility is a medical condition that can often be treated with low risks and high rewards. You should seek the help of an infertility specialist if you have been trying to get pregnant for six months or more. You should also talk to a specialist if you have had more than one miscarriage or are considering your options for fertility preservation.