While Primary infertility refers to the inability of a woman who has never been pregnant in the past, to conceive, Secondary Infertility is defined as an inability to conceive more than 1 year after having conceived in the past. Most patients find it difficult to accept the fact that having once been able to conceive they are now unable to do so. When confronted with the proposition that they need IVF, women who have Secondary Infertility find it harder to accept than do those who have Primary Infertility. It commonly raises issues of guilt, a declining sense of self-worth and ultimately self-recrimination impacting rational decision making, family dynamics that involve partners and siblings and relatives. The fact is that secondary infertility can be just as difficult for individuals and family to deal with as primary infertility.
There are several factors that contribute to the problem of Secondary Infertility. These include:
- Social and marital factors: In this modern day and age where at least one in two marriages ends in divorce, it is not surprising that there would be an inevitable hiatus in childbearing. This often results in a considerable delay in re-initiating family building. Since the biological clock keeps on ticking in the interim, advancing age can, and often does, have a profound effect on a woman’s ability to subsequently conceive and successfully complete a pregnancy. In my experience, this is one of the most common reasons for secondary infertility. In addition, by the time a decision is made to enter a new relationship, many men and women will have undergone a prior sterilization procedure which now needs to be addressed. To make matters worse, many such men and women first opt for surgical reversal of their occlusive surgery, only to learn in the end that the procedures were not successful, and they now need to consider in vitro fertilization (IVF) in one form or another.
- Financial factors: Here, the cost of raising a child often weighs heavily, especially in this present tough economic climate. This is becoming more of an issue as women playing an ever increasing role as a primary bread winner.
- Career demands: There can be little doubt that when it comes to climbing the career ladder, women are considerably disadvantaged by the fact that pregnancy and the immediate demands of child rearing take away from their ability to compete with men. As such, many women choose to delay having another child until such time as they have been able to make up for prior lost opportunity.
- Medical barriers to fertility: Certain common medical conditions, while not absolutely precluding pregnancy, make it much more difficult to conceive.
- Endometriosis: It is not uncommon for women with endometriosis to achieve a pregnancy, but find difficulty in doing so again at a later date. The reason for this is that while most women with endometriosis have patent fallopian tubes, the environment surrounding their tubes is compromised due to pelvic toxins that are produced by the endometriotic implants. These toxins compromise egg fertilization potential, making it more difficult for sperm in the fallopian tube to fertilize the egg upon its arrival there. As such, endometriosis is one of the commonest causes of secondary infertility.
- Tubal damage due to prior pelvic inflammatory disease: In first world countries, the early and often indiscriminate use of antibiotics for the slightest symptom has led to the point where an acute attack of pelvic inflammatory disease is often masked. As such, less than 30% of American women with tubal damage have knowledge that their tubes are compromised and that they might have subsequent difficulty in conceiving. Since, in many such cases the tubal damage will not have totally blocked both tubes, some of the women so affected might experience a pregnancy but have difficulty in conceiving again later down the line.
- Dysfunctional ovulation: Since ovulation as well as normal hormonal support of the early implanting embryo are both essential for a healthy pregnancy to occur, it follows that women with irregular or dysfunctional ovulation (e.g., polycystic ovarian syndrome – PCOS, persistent follicular luteal phase deficiencies or post birth control pill ovulatory problems) might sporadically conceive and thereupon find it difficult to do achieve another pregnancy later on.
- Immunologic Implantation Dysfunction (IID): has become ever more apparent that immunologic factors play an important role in achieving healthy implantation. Women with endometriosis (regardless of its severity), those with a personal or family history of autoimmune diseases such as lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis and thyroid autoimmunity (TAI), and some cases where the man and the woman share certain genetic similarities involving DQ alpha and HLA genotype (alloimmune implantation dysfunction), will have activated T cells (cytotoxic lymphocytes) and natural killer cells (NKa)CTL/NK cells that can inhibit or compromise healthy implantation. This is an often overlooked cause of secondary infertility. Most such autoimmune/alloimmune cases require selective immunotherapy and IVF.
- Anti-sperm Antibodies: Although infrequent, some cases of secondary infertility might also be caused by the woman harboring anti-sperm antibodies. In such cases IVF is mandated.
- Previous post-pregnancy uterine inflammation: Retention of products of conception after the birth of a child, miscarriage, or abortion can so damage the uterine lining as to result in subsequent implantation failure. Unless specifically looked for, this will usually be unknown to the patient, who will simply present with secondary infertility. Treatment is often difficult because such patients might not respond adequately to surgical removal of intrauterine scar tissue or to hormonal or Viagra therapy.
Male immunologic factors: Most men who have undergone a previous vasectomy more than 10 years earlier, will have anti-sperm antibodies that will interfere with fertilization. Such cases require IVF with intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI). Here we offer a few words of caution to men who are considering undergoing surgical reversal of vasectomy. Always first have a test done to exclude the presence of circulating anti-sperm antibodies, because in such cases, even if the reversal is successfully performed, they will not be able to initiate a pregnancy without IVF/ICSI.
Whatever the cause, Secondary Infertility often affects older couples disproportionately, creating a sense of urgency and even desperation in achieving a viable pregnancy before time runs out. It is for this reason that IVF becomes the treatment of choice in such cases. However, even IVF becomes progressively less successful with advancing age of the woman (whose eggs are being fertilized). In such cases it is important for the couple to be realistic with regard to their expectations. Here, options that include embryo banking and egg donation should be carefully considered.
Finally, whenever a regularly ovulating younger woman (under 36 years of age) with patent fallopian tubes is diagnosed with secondary infertility, it is essential to consider underlying endometriosis or non-obstructive tubal disease as a possible cause. In such cases, IVF often becomes the treatment of choice.