If you are having difficulties becoming pregnant, you may have decided to try certain fertility treatments in order to increase your chances of conceiving. Intrauterine insemination (IUI) is often the first type of fertility treatment attempted by couples. In order to get sperm ready for the IUI procedure, it must first be washed. Sperm washing may sound strange, but it actually works to ensure that only the healthiest sperm are used during the procedure. Sperm washing can increase your chances of conception and may help you to welcome a new addition to your family.
What is Sperm Washing?
Sperm washing is a procedure used to prepare sperm for use in IUI. It allows your partner’s sperm a better chance for survival and fertilization. Sperm washing separates sperm cells from a man’s semen, helping to get rid of dead or slow-moving sperm as well as additional chemicals that may impair fertilization. Once sperm has been washed at your fertility clinic’s laboratory, it can be used during IUI to help achieve pregnancy. There are a variety of different sperm washing procedures.
Why is Sperm Washing Necessary?
Sperm must be washed in order to be used with IUI. Raw semen cannot be inserted directly into a woman’s uterus. This is because semen contains chemicals called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins cause muscular contractions and are responsible for cramps during menstruation and pregnancy. If raw semen is inserted directly into your uterus, rather than going through the cervix first, it could cause severe pain and cramping. It could also cause your uterus to collapse, causing severe complications.
Sperm is also washed in order to increase your chances of becoming pregnant. Sperm washing can remove dead sperm and those sperm with poor motility. This leaves behind sperm that can swim faster and that are more likely to fertilize your egg. Sperm washing can also get rid of the white blood cells, mucous and seminal fluid surrounding the sperm, which can also interfere with fertility.
Who Can Benefit From Sperm Washing? Anyone who pursues IUI will receive the sperm washing procedure. However, the procedure can also benefit others, especially those with:
- unexplained infertility
- male-factor infertility
- women with endometriosis
- men with antisperm antibodies
Preparing for the Sperm Wash
The sperm wash procedure is actually relatively easy to prepare for. Your semen will be collected after you masturbate, or from a sample taken during surgical sperm retrieval. It is important to refrain from sexual intercourse for two days before your sperm is collected. However, do not go more than five days without intercourse. Certain antibiotics may also affect the quality of your sperm, so speak with your reproductive endocrinologist if you are taking any medications.
Sperm Washing Procedures
There are three commonly-used sperm washing techniques.
Simple Sperm Wash
The simple sperm wash technique is the most basic way of washing and preparing sperm for IUI. Semen is diluted in a test tube with a special solution of antibiotics and protein supplements. It is then placed in a centrifuge, a machine that spins around at extremely high speeds. As the sperm mixture is spun, sperm cells fall to the bottom of the test tube, producing a mass of dense, highly active sperm. These sperm can then be removed from the test tube and used in IUI. A simple sperm wash takes about 20 to 40 minutes.
Density Gradient Sperm Wash
The density gradient sperm wash is one of the most popular sperm washing methods. This is because it also works to separate dead sperm cells, white blood cells, and other waste products from the sperm.
A test tube is filled with multiple layers of liquids of different densities. Semen is then placed on the top layer of liquid and the test tube is spun in a centrifuge. After it is spun, active, healthy sperm will make their way to the very bottom layer of liquid in the test tube, while debris and dead sperm will get caught in the top two layers. These layers can be siphoned off in order to remove the active sperm from the test tube. This sperm is then used in the IUI procedure. Density gradient sperm washes take approximately 60 minutes.
Swim Up Technique
The swim up technique is rapidly becoming more and more popular throughout American fertility clinics. This technique revolves around the fact that sperm need to swim forwards and up in order to reach the uterus. Only the most powerful sperm will be able to do this. In order to retrieve this powerful sperm, semen is placed in a culture dish with a layer of media culture. Sperm are attracted to this culture, and will swim up to it. As the sperm swim up to the culture, they are collected. This technique takes about two hours in order to harvest enough sperm for use in IUI.
Success rates do increase when sperm washing is used with IUI. Because sperm washing ensures that only the most healthy and active sperm are used for fertilization, there is an increased chance that you will become pregnant when using washed sperm. However, success rates do depend on your partner’s overall sperm count. Typically, the lowest sperm count to be used with sperm washing is one million, however, success rates are significantly lower if your sperm count falls beneath five to ten million. The best sperm counts for use with sperm washing are those between 20 and 30 million.
Cost of the Procedure
The cost of sperm washing in itself is relatively low. A basic sperm wash typically costs only $100 or so. If you opt for one of the more advanced forms of sperm washing, it could cost you up to $300. However, sperm washing is only of use when combined with other fertility treatment procedures. One session of natural IUI typically costs under $1,000 while IUI with the use of fertility drugs and monitoring can cost anywhere between $3,000 and $6,000.