Complete Guide to Infertility

A

Adrenal glands

These are two small glands which sit above the kidneys and produce hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. They also aid with the production of testosterone and other androgens.  

Amniocentesis

A test carried out around the 15th week of pregnancy in which a sample of the amniotic fluid that surrounds the foetus is removed for analysis. It is performed as a check for genetic disorders.

Anovulation

No ovulation. The woman fails to release eggs on a monthly basis or not at all which means that ovulation doesn’t occur.

Antibodies

A type of protein which is produced by the body’s immune system which is designed to attack foreign bodies and toxins. This form of defence is carried out by the white blood cells (lymphocyte).

Appendicitis

Inflammation of the appendix.

Assisted Hatching

The name given to the procedure in which a hole is made into the outer layer (zona pellucida) of the egg. This enables the embryo to ‘hatch’ out of the egg before attaching itself to the uterus.

Assisted Reproductive Technique (ART)

A fertility technique which is used to artificially help with conception. Examples of this include IVF, GIFT and ICSI.

Azospermia

An absence of sperm in the man’s semen.

B

Basal body temperature

The lowest temperature in the body and one that is measured first thing in the morning. 

Blastocyst

The name given to an embryo which has developed on day 6 following fertilisation.

Body mass index

Known as BMI for short. A calculation used to determine body fat levels based upon a person’s height and weight. Often used to assess obesity.

C

Cervical mucus

A type of sticky substance produced by the cells of the cervix which is produced during a woman’s monthly cycle. This mucus changes throughout different stages of this cycle and is used to predict ovulation.

Cervix

The bottom part of the uterus which joins with the top part of the vagina. It enables blood to flow out through the vagina during menstruation and widens during childbirth to allow the foetus to pass from the uterus to the vagina.

Chlamydia

The most common sexually transmitted disease in the UK. It affects both men and women equally and can cause long term damage such as infertility if left untreated.

Chromosome

A thread like structure of DNA and protein in cells within the body which contains genes and other hereditary information. The human body has 23 pairs of chromosomes.

Clomid

The brand name for clomiphene citrate. A popular fertility drug that is used to stimulate ovulation.

Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH)

A genetically inherited condition in which a defective enzyme, present in the adrenal glands, limits the production of cortisol.

Cortisol

Often know as a ‘stress hormone’ it is produced by the body’s adrenal glands as a reaction to a perceived threat. It forms part of the ‘fight or flight’ response.

Cushing’s syndrome

A rare condition in which the body produces too much cortisol. Most commonly caused by a non-cancerous tumour in the pituitary gland.

Cystic fibrosis

A genetic disease which mainly affects the lungs and digestive system.

D

Diabetes

A condition in which the body doesn’t produce enough insulin or fails to regulate it. People with diabetes have to regulate their blood sugar levels to prevent them from becoming too low or too high.

There are two forms of diabetes – Type 1 and Type 2.

Diaphragm (contraception)

The diaphragm is a type of female contraceptive device which is inserted into the vagina to prevent sperm from passing through.

Donor insemination

The process whereby donor sperm is inserted into the woman’s cervix, vagina or womb. This is carried out if the woman’s natural partner has a low sperm count or suffers from azospermia.  

Down’s syndrome

A genetic condition caused by an extra chromosome. People with this condition have a characteristic Mongoloid appearance.

E

Ectopic pregnancy

A type of pregnancy in which the fertilised egg develops outside of the womb, usually the fallopian tube. However, it can also develop in one of the ovaries or the neck of the cervix.

Edwards syndrome

Also known as ‘trisomy 18’: this genetic disorder causes a range of defects in the newborn baby such as cleft palate, breathing difficulties, webbing of the feet and digestive problems. 

Egg

Produced by the female during her monthly cycle. 

Embryo

A fertilised egg.

Endocrine system

A series of glands which produce hormones that regulate physical growth, sexual development and the metabolism. They control most of the functions of the body.

Endometriosis

A condition in which cells commonly found in the lining of the womb grow on the outside of organs around the womb. These include the ovaries, fallopian tubes, bladder and bowel. They cause internal bleeding and pain and can lead to infertility. 

Epididymis

A tube that connects the vas deferens to the testes. Sperm move along this tube and wait in the lower part until ejaculation.

F

Fallopian tubes

Part of the female reproductive system, these tubes lead from the ovaries to the womb. They are the area for fertilisation in natural conception.

Fertilisation

The process in which sperm from the male combines with an egg from the female. This joining results in the development of an embryo. Fertilisation is performed either inside the woman’s body or in a laboratory (‘in vitro’).

Fibroids

Non-cancerous growths which attach themselves to the lining of the womb.

Fimbria

A fringe of tissue around the outside of the fallopian tube, near the ovary. 

Foetus

The name given to the stage in human development after the formation of the embryo.

Follicle

A tiny sac within the ovary. Eggs or ova are developed here before being released down the fallopian tubes.

Follicle stimulating hormone (FSH)

A hormone produced by the body’s pituitary gland which encourages the growth of extra follicles by the ovaries.

G

Gamete

The name given to the egg or sperm which join together to form a zygote.

Gamete Intra-Fallopian Transfer (GIFT)

An assisted reproductive technique in which eggs are extracted from the woman, combined with sperm from the man and injected back into the woman’s fallopian tube to enable fertilisation to take place.

Gonadotrophin

A type of fertility drug which stimulates the ovaries and triggers ovulation.

Gonorrhoea

A common sexually transmitted disease which affects both sexes. It is treatable if caught early but if not, it can lead to fertility problems.

H

Haemophilia

A genetic disorder in which blood fails to clot properly.

High blood pressure

The medical term for this is hypertension. It can increase the risk of developing heart disease or a stroke.

Human chorionic gonadotrophin

A protein based hormone which is produced by the developing embryo shortly after implantation in the uterus. 

Huntingdon’s disease

A genetic degenerative disorder which affects muscle co-ordination and cognitive functions such as short term memory loss.

Hypogonadotropic hypogonadism

A condition of the pituitary gland in which there is a failure to produce follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH). This impairs the function of the testes or the ovaries which leads to infertility.

Hysterosalpingogram

A fertility test in which dye is injected into the fallopian tubes followed by an x-ray to check for damage or blockages.

Hysteroscopy

A procedure which involves the insertion of a thin camera mounted tube or hysteroscope inside the womb as a diagnostic tool. It is usually performed to look for fibroids or polyps.

I

Implantation

The process where an embryo embeds itself in the wall of the uterus.

Intra Cytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI)

A procedure carried out as part of IVF in which a single sperm is injected into an egg.

Intra Uterine Insemination (IUI)

The process whereby sperm are introduced into the uterus. The sperm are washed which means that superior sperm are separated from the semen before insertion via an injectable device.

In Vitro Fertilisation

The most commonly known infertility technique. Eggs from the woman are combined with sperm from the man and fertilised under controlled laboratory conditions. The fertilised egg is allowed to develop into a sperm before implantation into the woman’s uterus. 

J

K

Kleinfelter’s syndrome

A genetic disorder in men who have an extra ‘X’ chromosome. Men usually have XY chromosome make up whereas women have XX chromosome make up.  Men with this condition have a rounded body shape, breast development (gynecomastia), small genitals and infertility.

L

Laparoscopy

The medical term for keyhole surgery. Laparoscopy involves the insertion of a camera mounted tube into the body which guides the surgeon during a procedure.

Live birth rate

A term used in fertility treatment to describe the number of live pregnancies from every 100 treatment cycles.

Luteinising hormone (LH)

A hormone released by the pituitary gland which helps to stimulate ovulation. It also prepares the uterus for embryo implantation and controls the production of male and female hormones.

M

Menopause

A natural part of the ageing process in women. It is a time in the woman’s life which signifies the end of her childbearing years. It generally starts around the age of 50 although some women experience this at an earlier age.

Menstruation

The medical term for a woman’s monthly periods. This takes place each month and involves the shedding of the lining of the womb.

Miscarriage

The name given to a pregnancy which does not go the full term. This usually happens before week 24 and occurs in 3 out of 10 pregnancies.

Muscular Dystrophy

A genetic condition which causes muscle weakness. It usually affects boys although there have been a few cases involving girls.

Multiple births

One of the side effects of infertility treatment. If several embryos are implanted (e.g. IVF) then there is the risk that more than one of these will develop into a baby.

N

Natural cycle

A cycle of treatment in which egg production occurs without the aid of fertility drugs.

O

Oestrogen

A female hormone produced by the ovaries. Levels of this fluctuate throughout the monthly cycle.

Oestradiol test

A test carried out to monitor oestrogen levels in women who are experiencing menstrual irregularities, infertility or symptoms of the menopause.

Oligospermia

Medical term for a low sperm count in men.

Osteoporosis

A medical condition where the bones become thin and weak which increases the risk of a fracture. This condition is more common in women than men.

Ova

The collective name for eggs.

Ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome

A side effect of fertility drugs such as gonadotrophins which overstimulate the ovaries causing abdominal pain, bloating, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Ovaries

Female reproductive organs which produce eggs and the hormones oestrogen and progesterone.

Ovulation

The process in which an egg is released from the ovary on a monthly basis. The timing of this is vital for couples who are trying to conceive.

Ovum

The name given to a single egg.

P

Pelvic inflammatory disease

This disease affects the female reproductive system and is caused by a sexually transmitted disease such as chlamydia.

Pituitary gland

A tiny gland located at the base of the brain which forms part of the endocrine system. It releases hormones which control the metabolism, blood pressure, breast milk production and functions of the thyroid gland.

Polycystic kidney disease

A genetic disorder where cysts grow inside the kidneys.

They cause the kidneys to swell which reduces their function and leads to kidney failure.

Polycystic ovarian syndrome

Similar to the above but the cysts grow on the outside of the ovaries which cause hormonal imbalances that lead to infertility.

Polyps

Also known as endometrial polyps or uterine polyps. These are small growths which grow in the lining of the uterus and are usually non-cancerous.  They can be caused by a hormonal imbalance.

Pre-eclampsia

This condition occurs during pregnancy and causes high blood pressure, abdominal pain, headaches and blurred vision.  

Progesterone

Female hormone produced by the ovaries which stimulates the lining of the womb to prepare for pregnancy.

Prolactin

This is a hormone produced by the pituitary glands which helps with pregnancy and stimulates breast milk (lactation). It is normally present in low levels but this rapidly increases during pregnancy.

Women who show high levels of this but are not pregnant need to undergo a prolactin test to determine the causes of this problem. Very high levels of prolactin can lead to infertility.

Q

R

Rectum

The final section of the large intestine. Waste is stored here until excretion from the body via the anus.

Retrograde ejaculation

A condition in which sperm flow into the bladder during ejaculation instead of leaving the body through the penis.

S

Sex selection

A procedure carried out during genetic screening to determine the sex of the embryo.

Sickle cell anaemia

A blood disorder in which the body produces abnormally shaped red blood cells which are ‘sickle shaped’ (shaped like the letter ‘C’).

These cells are unable to flow as well as normal cells which lead to blockages in blood vessels, causing pain and infection.

Sperm

A gamete produced by the man. Millions of these are present in ejaculation with one half carrying X chromosomes and the other half carrying Y chromosomes. If a single sperm combines with an egg then fertilisation takes place which leads to a pregnancy.

Surrogacy

An arrangement whereby a woman agrees to carry a baby for another couple, usually because the couple have fertility problems.

T

Tay Sach’s disease

A genetic disorder which causes the destruction of nerve cells in the spine and brain.

Testes

The male reproductive organs. Also known as the testicles.

Testosterone

The principal male hormone.

Thyroid gland

A butterfly shaped gland found in the neck which is part of the endocrine system. It releases hormones into the bloodstream and is responsible for the regulation of the metabolism.

Thyroxine

The major hormone produced by the thyroid gland. Artificial forms of this are given to patients suffering from an underactive thyroid.  

Tubal blockage

The name given to a blockage of the fallopian tubes caused by infections or diseases such as pelvic inflammatory disease. This blockage prevents sperm from accessing the tubes and fertilising an egg.

It can also cause infertility. 

Tubal ligation

This is a surgical procedure carried out as a form of sterilisation in which the surgeon cuts and then ties off the fallopian tubes which prevent fertilisation. There is the possibility of reversing this procedure although success rates are variable.

Turner’s syndrome

A genetic condition which affects only girls, it is caused by a defective chromosome and leads to a range of symptoms which include underdeveloped ovaries. This causes an absence of periods and infertility.

U

Urethra

A tube which connects the bladder to the outside of the body. In males it travels through the penis to the bladder, carrying semen as well as urine. In females it emerges around the opening to the vagina.

Urinary incontinence

The medical term for the involuntary leaking of urine. It is more common in women than men and develops with age.

Uterine septum

A congenital disorder where a band of tissue forms in the uterus and divides it into two sections.

Uterus

Also known as the womb: part of the female reproductive system where an embryo develops into a baby.

V

Vagina

It is an internal canal within the female reproductive system which extends from the bottom half of the cervix to an exterior opening or vulva.

Varicocele

A condition which only affects males in which ‘varicose veins’ develop on the outside of a testicle, usually the left hand one. This causes the testicles to overheating which reduces sperm production.

Vas deferens

A pair of tubes within the male reproductive system which connect the epididymis to the urethra. Enables the passage of sperm during ejaculation.

Vasoepididymostomy

A surgical procedure which treats an obstruction in the epididymis, such as inflammation or following a vasectomy.

Vasovasostomy

The surgical procedure to reverse a vasectomy. Success rates are low from this procedure.

W

White blood cells

Also known as leucocytes. These are part of the immune system and act as a defence against foreign bodies, infections and toxins. These cells are on constant alert for signs of disease or infection and have a variety of ways of dealing with them. These include producing antibodies which disable the invader or destroying it completely.

Womb

Also known as the uterus. A major part of the female reproductive system, this is where the foetus develops during pregnancy.

X

Y

Y-chromosome

This chromosome contains genes which cause the foetus to develop into a male. 

Z

Zona pellucida

The outer layer or shell of the embryo.

Zygote Intra-Fallopian Transfer (ZIFT)

This is similar to GIFT except that the embryo is transferred to the fallopian tubes at a very early stage (day 1 or one cell) for fertilisation. A one cell stage embryo is called a zygote. 

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