The reproductive system and its related functions are completely different in males and females. Although men can keep producing sperm for a longer period of time in their lives, women only produce a finite number of eggs in their lifetime.
Now, this is not to say that sperm health, semen volume, and quality do not decline as a man ages. But for women, they do stop producing eggs completely after menopause, which generally occurs around the age of 45-50. Some women reach menopause much earlier in life too, losing their ability to conceive.
Women these days delay marriages and pregnancy for many reasons such as they may not have found the right partner or reached the pinnacle in their career as yet. But what is important to know is that a woman’s fertility peaks in her 20s and early 30s. Once a woman is above 30 years of age, her fertility starts to decline, both in quality and quantity. This decline is even faster after 35 years of age, until menopause which is usually around 40s and 50s. For this reason, women who try to conceive after a certain age find it increasingly difficult to get pregnant or give birth to healthy babies.
Until recently, the only option for couples who wanted to conceive, but were not in their prime reproductive age, was to conceive through assisted reproductive technologies such as IVF or ICSI.
For women whose ovarian reserve is completely diminished, IVF may be required with donor eggs.
Fortunately, in recent years, there has been a rapid development in the field of oocyte cryopreservation, also known as egg freezing. A woman’s healthy eggs from a young age can be frozen for a long period and fertilised at a later time when she is ready to have a baby. This gives women, who want to conceive at a later age, due to social reasons or an illness, the option to use their own eggs which will be the best quality to get pregnant and have a healthy baby.
Here the fantastic Nova IVI Fertility clinic answers some of our readers questions about egg freezing
What is the process of freezing eggs?
Oocyte cryopreservation (egg freezing) follows the same procedure as IVF, in that the eggs are retrieved from the woman’s ovaries using a minimally invasive transvaginal probe. Usually, 10 to 15 or even 20 eggs are retrieved over 2 or 3 cycles – the greater the number of eggs retrieved, the better the chances for the woman to have a successful IVF later.
The eggs are quickly frozen to minus 196 degrees Celsius. Since the majority of the egg contains water, the water is removed and substituted by anti-freeze solutions to prevent the formation of crystals. Later, when the woman wants to conceive, the eggs are thawed, injected with a sperm through ICSI and, once fertilised, the embryo is transferred to the woman’s uterus.
The advanced technique of freezing eggs much faster than traditional method cryopreservation is called vitrification. Also called flash-freezing, it freezes/vitrifies the eggs in an ultra-rapid way to prevent crystallisation altogether. This method has proven to be highly efficient and results in a higher survival rate of the oocytes and has a success rate as good as that of fresh embryo transfers. Thus, this technique is being adopted by top fertility centres around the world.
How are eggs retrieved?
Before retrieving the eggs, the woman is given fertility drugs to stimulate her ovaries to produce a larger number of mature eggs in one cycle. These are the same fertility drugs used in IVF treatment. After approximately 10-11 days of fertility drugs, the eggs mature and are ready to be retrieved.
To retrieve the eggs, a minimally invasive needle is used. The patient will be under mild sedation and the procedure is painless. The needle is passed through the vagina using an ultrasound scanner and the eggs are retrieved from the ovarian follicles through suction at the end of the needle.
How long can you freeze eggs?
The quality of the eggs is not affected by time. There have been successful IVF cases using eggs frozen for 15-20 years. Unlike inside a woman’s body where the oocytes age, the frozen oocytes retain the fertility potential at the age they were frozen. Say, a woman has frozen eggs at 25 and decides to go for IVF at 35, the frozen eggs are as healthy as when she was 25!
When is the best time to freeze your eggs?
Ideally, a woman’s eggs are frozen when she is at the prime of her reproductive age. If a woman or couple has plans to raise their own children later on in life, say, in their late thirties or forties, they are encouraged to freeze their eggs when the woman is in her reproductive prime i.e. in the twenties. Eggs frozen after 35 years of age will have a reduced quality and the chances of IVF failure or miscarriage increases.
Who is egg freezing for?
Any woman who plans to delay pregnancy for any reason can choose to freeze her eggs. Egg freezing is also an excellent option for a woman who is diagnosed with cancer and needs to start undergoing cancer treatment. Treatments like radiotherapy and chemotherapy wreak havoc with the body and could potentially upset a woman’s reproductive functions either temporarily or permanently. Egg freezing gives a woman undergoing cancer treatment the chance to have her own babies in a natural way again.
Are there any side effects from the eggs freezing procedure?
There are no side effects to freezing one’s eggs. A possible risk is during the ovarian stimulation phase. The hormonal drugs, if not closely monitored, could induce ovarian hyper-stimulation syndrome (OHSS). OHSS is a potentially dangerous condition with symptoms that include nausea, vomiting, bloating and abdominal pain. Many successful fertility centres have eliminated the risk of OHSS by closely monitoring the ovaries through ultrasound and stopping the administration of drugs or reducing the dosage if any signs appear.
The day after the retrieval of eggs, women may experience slight cramping or pain, and bloating, but it is minor enough that many women even go to work the following day.
Hope we could help you with the commonly asked questions related to egg freezing and cryopreservation.