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What Is IVF?

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IVF, or in vitro fertilization, is the process of fertilizing an egg with sperm in a laboratory, and implanting it within a woman's uterus as an embryo. Many couples find themselves struggling to get pregnant “the old fashioned way,” but these stunning advances in medical science are now able to give hope to those suffering infertility. It does not work for everyone, however.

Doctor helping woman inject drugs to prepare for IVF

The success of IVF depends upon which particular fertility problems you or your partner (or both of you) are experiencing, what age you are, and your overall health. Read on to understand more of the benefits and risks that in vitro fertilization can offer.

How In Vitro Fertilization Works

Going through IVF can be an emotional minefield. Try to prepare yourself as much as possible by learning about IVF, and talking about all aspects of it with your partner or a supportive friend or family member. It will help to know what to expect. Here's how it works:

  1. To stimulate egg production, the woman is injected with fertility drugs.

  2. Vaginal ultrasound is used to observe egg production.

  3. Under anesthetic, a surgeon inserts a fine needle through the vagina to collect eggs from the ovaries. The average number of eggs collected is 9 or 10.

  4. The partner or donor gives a sperm sample.

  5. The sperm and eggs are mixed together in a lab. Any of the eggs that become fertilized during this process are called embryos.

  6. To help thicken the lining of the uterus (which prepares it for pregnancy), the woman is given the hormone progesterone.

  7. A few days after the egg collection and fertilization, the doctor identifies the one or two most viable embryos, and implants them into the uterus (a small catheter is placed through the vagina to achieve this). If the woman is over 40 they may implant 3 embryos to give a better chance of success.

  8. A couple of weeks later, a test will determine whether or not the woman is pregnant.

What Could Go Wrong?

Well, It Might Not Work

While it's important to retain hope and positivity throughout the process, try to be realistic about the outcome. According to the most recent data from the CDC (in 2009), only 22.4% of IVF treatments resulted in a live birth. That said, those statistics are an average, drawn from a wide array of age ranges. Success rates for younger women are higher (39.6% for under 35s), while those for older women are lower (11.5% for over 40s).

Ovarian Hyper-Stimulation Syndrome (OHSS)

Throughout the in vitro fertilization process, you will be injected with a cocktail of fertility drugs. This can result in something called Ovarian Hyper-Stimulation Syndrome, which is the production of too many eggs. Symptoms of OHSS are shortness of breath, blood clots, and fluid retention in the abdomen, all caused by your ovaries being distended. It is very painful, and if severe may require a hospital stay.

Multiple Pregnancies

Since it is usually at least two (and perhaps even three) embryos that will be implanted into your uterus during IVF, the chances of you having twins or triplets is very real. Even though medical advances mean that each embryo has a higher chance of success, and therefore fewer will need to be implanted, multiple pregnancies remains one of the biggest risks of IVF. Health problems for both mother and baby can be magnified in the event of twins or triplets (or more), and the vast majority of these babies are born prematurely, and with low birth weights. It is most often the case, however, that after the struggles and heartache a couple suffers trying to get pregnant, the idea of having more than one baby is a happy one.

Infection

The risk here is low, but worth noting. As with all surgeries (minor or otherwise), there exists the risk of infection. Antibiotics would clear it up quickly, though, and it is rare.

Emotional Impact

This is not an easy process. The barrage of tests, scans and procedures are nerve-wracking, physically exhausting, and expensive. Any reputable IVF clinic will offer you counseling services to help guide you through the anxiety and depression you may experience.

 
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