Causes of male fertility can be hard to diagnose. The problems are most often with sperm production or delivery. Diagnosis starts with a full history and physical exam. Your health care provider may also want to do blood work and semen tests.
History and Physical Exam
Your health care provider will take your health and surgical histories. Your provider will want to know about anything that might lower your fertility. These might include defects in your reproductive system, low hormone levels, sickness or accidents.
Your provider will ask about childhood illnesses, current health problems, or medications that might harm sperm production. Such things as mumps, diabetes and steroids may affect fertility. Your provider will also ask about your use of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and other recreational drugs. He or she will ask if you've been exposed to ionizing radiation, heavy metals or pesticides. Heavy metals are an exposure issue (e.g. mercury, lead arsenic). All of these can affect fertility.
Your health care provider will learn how your body works during sex. He or she will want to know about you and your partner's efforts to get pregnant. For example, your healthcare provider may ask if you've had trouble with erections.
The physical exam will look for problems in your penis, epididymis, vas deferens, and testicles. Your doctor will look for varicoceles. They can be found easily with a physical exam.
Semen analysis is a routine lab test. It helps show the cause of male infertility. The test is most often done twice. Semen is collected by having you masturbate into a sterile cup. The semen sample is studied. It can be checked for things that help or hurt conception (fertilization).
Your health care provider will study your sperm volume, count, concentration, movement ("motility"), and structure. The quality of your sperm tells much about your ability to conceive (start a pregnancy). For instance, semen is normal if it turns from a pearly gel into a liquid within 20 minutes. If not, there may be a problem with the seminal vesicles, your male sex glands. Lack of fructose (sugar) in a sperm-free sample may mean there are no seminal vesicles. Or it may mean there is a blocked ejaculatory duct.
Even if the semen test shows low sperm numbers or no sperm, it may not mean you are permanently infertile. It may just show there's a problem with the growth or delivery of sperm. More test may be needed.
Your health care provider may order a transrectal ultrasound. Ultrasound uses sound waves bouncing off an organ to get a picture of the organ. A probe is placed in the rectum. It beams sound waves to the nearby ejaculatory ducts. The health care provider can see if structures such as the ejaculatory duct or seminal vesicles are poorly formed or blocked.
If a semen test shows a very low number of sperm or no sperm you may need a testicular biopsy. This test can be done in an operating room with general or local anesthesia. A small cut is made in the scrotum. It can also be done in a clinic using, a needle through the numbed scrotal skin. In either case, a small piece of tissue from each testicle is removed and studied under a microscope. The biopsy serves 2 purposes. It helps find the cause of infertility. And it can collect sperm for use in assisted reproduction.
The health care provider may check your hormones. This is to learn how well your testicles make sperm. It can also rule out major health problems. For example, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) is the pituitary hormone that tells the testicles to make sperm. High levels may mean your pituitary gland is trying to get the testicles to make sperm, but they won't.