When you’re thinking about having a baby, it may feel like you’re about to embark on a romantic journey with lots of frequent, unprotected sex along the way. The reality can quickly devolve into something very, very different: scheduled sex that can make you feel like an ovulation robot and turn your husband/significant other/partner into a sperm factory, months of nothing happening and no clue why, and very little information along the way. Sound familiar? In this article we’ll break down why sperm testing can be helpful when you’re trying to conceive (and even well before then, too!). We’ll go through an overview of how sperm works, what tests can tell you, and why it can be helpful to have this information sooner rather than later. Ready to dive in? Let’s do it.
To really understand what sperm tests will tell you, we need to back up and understand how sperm do what they do: swim from the penis up into the vagina, through the uterus, and down the fallopian tubes to find an egg to fertilize. To make that long journey – and to then successfully fertilize an egg – sperm need to be well-shaped and strong, fast, and numerous, and only a very few of them will survive by the very end. Scientifically these attributes are referred to as morphology, motility, and count. And, of course, it really is a team effort when it comes to making a baby – in fact, a lot of the motion that allows for sperm to reach the fallopian tubes is due to contractions in the female reproductive tract. Worth noting – there are also a few additional dimensions to sperm that are important to test for as well, and we’ll get into this later in the article.
Each sperm is one male reproductive cell, composed of two parts – the head (which contains the enzymes used to penetrate the egg, and the DNA which will eventually combine with the DNA in the egg), and the tail (which helps propel the sperm through the female reproductive tract and into the egg – what’s commonly referred to as swimming).1 Sperm are created in the testicles and, on their way to ejaculation, are mixed with a fructose-rich liquid produced in the seminal vesicles (located in the pelvis) which helps provide sperm with the energy required to complete the journey. This mixture of sperm and fluid is semen. Semen provides nutrients for the sperm and also creates a protective barrier against the acidity of the vagina.2 Approx. 300-400 million sperm are released each ejaculation in a healthy man.3
#SpermStat: sperm only make up approx. 5% of the total volume of semen – this is why men who’ve had vasectomies generally do not experience any change in the volume of their ejaculate.4
Upon ejaculation, sperm are propelled from the penis into the female reproductive tract, and their long journey to find a potential mate (er, egg) begin. A quick note: a condition called retrograde ejaculation happens when semen travels into the bladder instead of through the penis during ejaculation. Known as a dry orgasm, this can result in very little semen being ejaculated and, while not painful, can prove difficult for conception, but can be rectified with medical intervention.5
The fastest sperm can reach the fallopian tubes in just a few minutes, while others can take a few hours.6 This journey is not without risks – of the approx. 300 million sperm that are ejaculated, only a few thousand reach the fallopian tubes, and only one may penetrate an egg (and, of course, sometimes zero sperm penetrate an egg). What happens to the rest? They may be attacked by cells in the female immune system, swim into the wrong ovary (ovaries often trade off ovulation, so this would be the one without an egg to fertilize that month), or encounter various dead ends in the uterus wall along the way.7
After an egg is released from the ovary, it has 24 hours in which it can meet a sperm – and sperm can live for up to 5 days in the female reproductive system before this meeting. After ovulation the egg produces progesterone, which guides the progesterone-sensitive sperm towards it, through a process known as chemotaxis. At this point the sperm becomes hyper-activated (yes, that’s a technical term!).8 In a hyper-activated state, the tail of the sperm starts rapidly moving back and forth to give it a surge of energy to close that final gap between itself and the egg. Additionally, something called the acrosome reaction occurs, where the sperm’s head acts as a key to unlock the outer layer of the egg, and causes a reaction to prevent other sperm cells from being able to penetrate the egg. Then, the nucleus of the sperm fuses with the nucleus of the egg, forming one complete cell – the very beginnings of a future baby.9 Of the 300 million sperm to have started this journey, only one may end up actually fertilizing the egg (or two, as is the case with fraternal twins).
Whew, that was a lot of information. It’s important to understand how everything is supposed to work, because it’s a complicated process to make a baby and a lot can happen along the way! That’s where sperm tests (AKA semen analyses) come in. By doing a quick (and *completely painless*) test, men can understand exactly how their swimmers are swimming. By knowing where your guy stands at the beginning of trying to conceive you can save time, money, and worry. But not every sperm test is created equal.
First, you’ll want to ensure that you’re choosing a sperm test that measures all of the important dimensions of sperm health. As we went through in the first section, a man can have a lot of sperm, but if they’re not swimming strongly, they won’t reach the egg successfully. Conversely, your guy can have well-shaped and strong swimmers, but if there just aren’t enough of them they may not have the numbers needed to counteract the attrition that happens in the female reproductive tract. Here are the dimensions you should make sure a sperm test takes into account:
Certain tests may add on more dimensions to their sperm analysis, and that’s fine. But ensure that any sperm test that you select measures ALL of these aspects, otherwise you may get an incomplete picture of your partner’s reproductive health.
Your guy may also wonder about the difference between testing at a fertility clinic, and testing at home. Certain things are the same between the two experiences, and certain things are different. Whether your guy is testing at home or at a clinic, chances are that he’ll need to:
Of course, the largest difference is where the sample collection takes place. At a clinic, your guy will be provided with a private room in which he’ll masturbate during the appointed time and then pass his sample to the nurse or doctor. Worth noting: some clinics don’t have private rooms for sample collection, and will send men to the restroom (sometimes private, sometimes multi-stall) to get the job done. On the flip side, collecting a sample at home can be the easiest and most comfortable place to work through the somewhat...personal process. He’ll skip the awkward waiting room, sticky magazines used by who-knows-how-many other men, and stressful “ejaculate on demand” pressure. With an at-home test he’ll masturbate at home, pop his sample into the mail, and get results through an online dashboard. Ease, privacy, and comfort guaranteed.
P.S. As we’re sure you’ve guessed, we make an at-home sperm test here at Fellow that measures for all of these important sperm attributes – something you won’t find with other at-home tests. You can learn more about the test here.
Learning more about your guy’s sperm can help you create an action plan. Everything come back normal? Great! Starting to understand when you’re ovulating is a great next step, so you can ensure you’re having sex during that crucial window when an egg can successfully meet a sperm.
Something unexpected revealed with the test? That’s ok, too. With male fertility there is a ton you can do to increase sperm health and successful pregnancy outcomes – from lifestyle changes, to understanding the best cadence of sexual activity, to more intensive medical interventions. Knowledge is power, and armed with this info, your guy can start to make changes to get his swimmers in tip top shape. For more information on certain lifestyle factors that can affect male fertility, see our article here. But you’re off to a great start – by understanding where your guy is at today, you can help plan for tomorrow.
Not ready to have kids yet? First of all, we’re impressed that you read this far. Second, a sperm test can still be valuable! A semen analysis can be a window into one’s overall health, and can be just the kick in the pants that your partner (or friend, brother, whomever) needs to start living his healthiest life. Because nothing says “more jogging and less chili cheese fries” like data on what’s actually happening underneath the hood.
The information we provide does not constitute medical advice. You should make all reproductive health decisions with a medical professional.
It would be nigh impossible to find a bunch more passionate about fertility than the Fellow Team. We are a group of colleagues who loves to author articles in our free time (that is, when we aren't challenging each other to games of Code Names). You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.