Freezing sperm at a glance
- Freezing sperm refers to the freezing and storage (called cryopreservation) of a man’s sperm.
- Stored sperm (i.e., “banked” as in a sperm bank) can be frozen indefinitely until needed for assisted reproductive procedures, such as in vitro fertilization (IVF), intrauterine insemination (IUI) or sperm donation.
- Typically, a man freezes his sperm if undergoing a medical treatment that may interfere with his fertility, including a vasectomy and chemotherapy or radiation for cancer.
- A man may also choose to freeze his sperm if he is in a line of work that puts him in life-threatening danger or otherwise puts his fertility at risk.
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What is sperm freezing?
Sperm freezing is the process of collecting, analyzing, freezing and storing a man’s sperm. The samples are later used for fertility treatments or donated to other couples or individuals, including same-sex female partners. This overall process is known as cryopreservation and is sometimes referred to as sperm banking.
The cryopreservation process involves:
- Routine screening for infection (HIV, hepatitis and rapid plasma reagin test for syphilis).
- Providing a semen sample or undergoing a sperm extraction.
- Lab analysis of sperm quantity and quality.
- Freezing of viable sperm.
- Storage of the sperm indefinitely.
How are sperm collected and frozen?
Sperm (the reproductive cells found in a man’s semen) is typically collected through masturbation. A man can choose to collect his sample at home or in our clinic, but should only use an approved, sterile lubricant that doesn’t harm the sample quality.
Men are also asked to abstain from sexual activity for approximately two days prior to the appointment to allow for the best possible specimen. Once a semen sample is provided it is tested for sperm quantity, shape and movement within each specimen.
If sperm are not present in the sample or if the man is unable to ejaculate, a surgical retrieval to remove sperm directly from the testicle is another option.
Next, the samples are separated into multiple vials to be frozen. Lab technicians will use specialized cryoprotectant (“anti-freeze”) agents to help preserve and protect sperm cells. The frozen sperm is then stored in the lab until needed. When the time comes, the sperm is thawed, washed and tested for mobility prior to use in IUI or IVF.
Who should consider freezing sperm and why?
The primary benefits of freezing sperm are to allow a man to preserve his fertility by using his sperm at a later date or to give an infertile couple, an infertile individual or a lesbian couple a chance to conceive.
Common reasons to choose to freeze sperm:
- Advancing age.
- Deteriorating sperm quality or low quantity.
- Cancer or other medical reasons.
- Pre-vasectomy patients.
- Transgender patients.
- Career and lifestyle choices, such as those with high-risk occupations or who spend a lot of time away from their significant other.
Risks involved in freezing sperm
There are no risks or side effects to collecting semen samples naturally (through masturbation). If surgical extraction is required, there are small risks, as with any surgery, such as bleeding or discomfort.
Sperm freezing has been successfully used since 1953 to help individuals conceive healthy babies. The process is safe, standardized and continues to improve as technology advances.
The primary concern with sperm freezing is that not all sperm survive the freezing and thawing process. However, as most semen ejaculations contain an appropriate number of sperm, the chance of having enough healthy sperm for fertility treatments is very high. The capability of the surviving sperm cells to fertilize an embryo is not jeopardized during the freezing or thawing process.
Cryopreservation is considered to have no time limit, and stored sperm as old as 20 years have been used to create healthy babies.