What is sperm freezing?
Sperm freezing is the most successful way for men to preserve their fertility. It also called sperm cryopreservation, sperm banking or semen storage. The process involves collecting and storing semen for future use. Semen is the fluid which contains sperm cells.
- Men who have been diagnosed with a disease such as cancer and need to undergo treatment which could reduce their fertility. This includes chemotherapy, as well as types of radiotherapy and surgery which affect the abdomen and groin.
- Boys who have gone through puberty and need to undergo treatment which could reduce their fertility 1.
- Men with low or deteriorating sperm count.
- Men who are planning to undergo a sex change procedure.
- In cases where men are planning to have a vasectomy, some men want to freeze sperm in case they decide to have more children in the future.
- Men who are at risk of injury or death. This would apply, for example, to members of the Armed Forces, who are being deployed to a war zone.
- Men who simply want to help single mothers-to-be or infertile couples have children.
How does sperm freezing work?
Step 1: Testing
Firstly, doctors will test your sperm for infectious diseases. This includes HIV and hepatitis. The results do not affect whether you can freeze your sperm. Doctors just need to know so that they can make sure they store the sample appropriately to prevent cross contamination.
Step 2: Providing a sperm sample
This can be embarrassing and difficult for some men. The staff at the clinic will provide you with a separate private room to do this. You will need to produce a sample of sperm by masturbating, and you need to collect the sample in a sterile container.
To collect the best quality sample, you should not have sexual intercourse or masturbate for 3-4 days before your visit . In some cases you may be able to produce the sample at home, but you will need to bring it into the clinic within one hour 2.
Step 3: Preparation for freezing
Scientists will divide the sperm sample into separate containers called straws. This means that all of the sperm does not need to be thawed in one go, so you can use it in multiple procedures.
Before freezing, scientists mix the sperm with a fluid called a cryoprotectant. This will protect the sperm cells from damage during the freezing process.
Step 4: Freezing
The samples are cooled slowly and stored in liquid nitrogen. The standard length of time the sperm cells are stored for is 10 years, although this can be extended to as long as 55 years in certain cases 3.
Step 5: Using your sperm
The exact type of fertility treatment will depend on a number of factors. These include the quantity and quality of the sperm sample and your partner’s health. The fertility treatment options include:
• Intrauterine insemination (IUI)
• In-vitro fertilisation (IVF)
• Intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI). Doctors use this if the sperm quality is lower.
What are the chances of success?
For reasons that are not fully understood, only sperm from some men are able to survive the process of freezing and thawing that is required for samples to be used in treatments. If sufficient numbers of your sperm cannot survive the freezing and thawing process then you will not be accepted as a donor.
Overall fertility treatments with frozen sperm, however, have the same overall success rates as those with fresh sperm .
How much does sperm freezing cost?
This depends on where you live and your specific circumstances, and in some areas it is free. However if you need to pay for this procedure, the cost of collecting and freezing the samples is £200- £400. On top of this, the cost of storing the sperm is around £300 per year .
Is sperm freezing a good option for me?
In order to undergo sperm freezing, you will need enough time before starting treatment for your primary disease. Therefore this is not an option for men who have certain types of cancer which need to be treated immediately, such as forms of leukaemia.
It is important to discuss your options with your doctor. In particular, make sure you find out how your specific type of treatment will affect your fertility. For some men, radiotherapy or chemotherapy will only temporarily affect their fertility and they are able to try for a child naturally later.
But in some men their sperm cells will not recover, and they will need to use the sperm they have frozen. However if you choose not to freeze your sperm, another option is to use donated frozen sperm.
Your doctor will be able to discuss your available options and the best course of action for you. Additionally they will be able to provide information about funding, and whether you can access help for this.
- Cancer Research UK. Sperm collection and storage (sperm banking). Internet. 2015. Available from: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/coping/physically/sex/men/sperm-banking ↩
- Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust. Fertility Preservation for Men. Internet. 2017. Available from: https://www.guysandstthomas.nhs.uk/resources/patient-information/acu/fertility-preservation-for-men.pdf ↩
- Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Sperm Freezing. Internet. 2018. Available from: https://www.hfea.gov.uk/treatments/fertility-preservation/sperm-freezing/ ↩