Sperm motility is the ability of sperm to move, in a straight line or a large sweeping curve. It is one of the three measures of sperm health, the other two being sperm count and sperm morphology, i.e. having a normal shape. Motility is important for fertility because if sperm have it poor, they are unable to swim through the woman’s cervix into the uterus and on into the fallopian tubes to fertilize a waiting egg.
In this IVI blog article, we are focusing on sperm motility. How do we define it and what causes it? What can we do, from a fertility point of view, to make improvements? We also look at how some fertility treatments can help to overcome the problem.
What is the definition of low sperm motility?
There are two different types of sperm motility. Progressive motility refers to sperm that swim mostly in a straight line or large circle. The term non-progressive motility applies to sperm that swim in small, tight circles. For sperm to get through the cervical mucus, they need to show a minimum progressive motility of 25 micrometres per second. Low motility, known as asthenozoospermia, is diagnosed when fewer than 32% of sperm in a sample can move in this way.
What are the causes of a low motility?
Fairly frequently, low sperm motility is associated with a low sperm count. Both of them make conception more unlikely. The causes of both conditions are not easy to pinpoint and can follow from a variety of circumstances. These include injury to the reproductive organs, especially the testicles. This can come about because of:
- Diseases such as testicular cancer.
- Injury resulting from surgery to the testicles.
- Congenital disorders such as undescended testicles or hormonal imbalances
- Varicocele, a condition in which veins inside the testicles become swollen
- Infection of the testicles including epididymitis, an inflammation of the tubes carrying sperm, and some STIs such as gonorrhea and HIV.
Lifestyle factors can have a similar impact on motility, morphology, and sperm count. These include:
- Smoking, including the use of marijuana
- Use of other recreational drugs
- Long-term use of other drugs such as anabolic steroids
- Overconsumption of alcohol
- Occupational hazards including exposure to dangerous chemicals such as cleaning fluids and the necessity of spending long periods of time driving or sitting for other reasons.
Obesity and depression, as well as some medications, have also an adverse impact on sperm quality, including motility.
How can low motility be improved?
It’s clear from the summary of causes above that some instances of low sperm motility can be addressed and improved, while others are not so easy to tackle. The measures that you can take for yourself to improve sperm motility include:
- Eating a healthy diet, with an emphasis on fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrain cereals, fish and nuts. Alongside this, avoiding highly processed foods and those containing phytoestrogens such as soy products, and foods contaminated with pesticide residue. Washing all pesticide-treated fruit and vegetables before consumption can reduce your exposure.
- Stopping smoking is one of the most important steps you can take. Smoking causes a variety of fertility problems in both men and women, including causing a reduced sperm count and reduced sperm motility. If you are aiming to improve your health before trying to conceive, it’s worth remembering that sperm take around three months to mature. For this reason, you should quit smoking at least three months before trying to conceive.
- Since being overweight, with a BMI of 25 or more, can reduce sperm motility and overall sperm quality. In this case it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about a weight loss programme. This will help you to reduce your weight in a healthy and sustainable way.
- If you can avoid overheating of the scrotum for long periods, you could improve sperm motility. The ideal temperature for sperm is just below body temperature. Therefore your testicles are outside your body, because to produce the best quality sperm they need to be kept cool. If your work requires you to operate in a hot environment, it’s important to take regular breaks outside. By the same token, if you sit still for long periods, remember to get up and move around frequently.
Can sperm motility be overcome with fertility treatment?
The good news is that, even if the reasons for your low sperm motility are outside your control, there are still ways for you to become a father. The most frequently recommended treatments in your situation would probably be intrauterine insemination (IUI), also known as artificial insemination, or in vitro fertilisation (IVF). The most recommended in your particular case would be a matter for consultation with a fertility doctor, and would depend on the personal history and circumstances of both you and your partner.
How to prepare sperm for fertility treatment
The major difference in sperm quality between trying to conceive naturally and both fertility treatment options is that your sperm sample can be prepared in advance to increase the chances of conception. In our IVI clinics, the andrology laboratory achieves this goal. They process your sperm sample to optimize its quality and hence heighten the probability of fertilization. During the preparation, our andrologists concentrate the sperm to priorities those with the best motility and discard the less healthy ones. For some treatments, for example IVF using the ICSI technique, the individual healthiest sperm can be selected for microinjection into each egg individually to facilitate conception.
If you have been diagnosed with low sperm motility or have any other concerns about male fertility, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at IVI. Nine out of ten couples who contact us with fertility problems fulfill their quest to become parents. The chances that we can help you are very good!