We’re going to take a wild guess that this is a test you aren’t really thrilled about taking. Make sure that you get the best possible results (and avoid unnecessary worry) by following a few tips. You may also want to take our risk assessment to get a heads up on any risk factors that could be impacting your fertility.
Semen analysis is the first step towards understanding a man’s fertility. The test will measure key parameters of semen known to impact fertility. Minimally, it will measure: sperm count or concentration (how many sperm you have), sperm motility (how many of them swim), semen volume (how much semen you make). More comprehensive analysis will also measure sperm morphology (the shape of sperm), liquefaction time (semen starts out viscous and over time should become watery) and pH of semen (how acidic it is)
Typically, semen analysis is performed by a technician who will literally take a drop of the sample, place it on a microscope slide and analyze it under a microscope. A number of factors including technician experience, method used and equipment can impact the quality of the results. You can learn more in our article on “Getting Tested.”
Because sperm are relatively fragile, sample collection and handling will also impact the quality of test results. If the sample sits in the cup too long, sperm will begin to die and break apart. If part of the sample isn’t collected, volume and count measurements will be inaccurate.
A bit of abstinence helps: To optimize results, it is best to test 2-7 days following your last ejaculation. The testicle is constantly producing sperm which are stored in a long tubular structure called the epididymis. During an ejaculation the epididymis is emptied and fresh sperm flow into it. It takes 2-3 days to completely refill the epididymis. Testing too soon after an ejaculation will usually show a lower sperm count.
So, waiting longer is better, right? Not exactly. Sperm cells have a limited lifespan of 3 weeks max inside the testicle. When ejaculations are infrequent, sperm cells start to die and break down inside the body. To get a good understanding of how healthy your sperm are, you really want to look at a fresh batch. In the week or two prior to a semen analysis, it is a good idea to “clean out the pipes” with more frequent ejaculations to clean out dead cells and fragments. Then, wait a few days to allow the epididymis to fill up with fresh sperm.
Avoid heat: During the week before the test do your best to not cook your balls which will result in mass casualties among your troops. Avoid hot tubs, saunas, grilling, laptop heat and the like. Brief exposures to high heat in the days prior to a semen analysis can cause premature cell death and will impact your motility results. Prolonged heat exposures like fevers, frequent hot tub use, long-periods of sitting, occupational heat exposures or laptop use can impair sperm production. Unfortunately, this can’t be resolved quickly. It takes about two and half months to make a sperm start to finish. However, if you have had prolonged exposures to high heat or a fever over 100 degrees in the past three months, it is worth mentioning to the doctor.
While you probably learned the ABCs of how to produce a semen sample sometime in middle school, there are a few things worth noting when you are trying to get some feedback regarding your fertility.
Can I collect a semen sample at home? Semen starts out viscous and over time liquefies. This helps it to stay near the cervix, then as it liquefies sperm are free to swim to the intended destinations. Clinics want to measure how long it takes for the semen to liquefy which is typically under an hour. For this reason they prefer to collect the sample at the clinic. However, If you live close enough, you may be able to bring a sample from home. Ask the doctor if you would prefer this option. If you have been given the green light to collect your sample at home, there are a few things you need to do to make sure you get accurate results:
Cap it right away: Semen samples tend to look like a few drops of liquid in the bottom of a big cup. Because the whole sample is spread out, seminal fluid is more likely to evaporate which in turn can cause sperm to dry out and die. Placing the cap on immediately after collection will reduce evaporation and improve accuracy of semen volume and sperm motility measurements.
Record exact time of collection: This will help the clinic to evaluate liquefaction time and ensure that the semen is analyzed at an appropriate time.
Watch the temperature: Sperm can only live for a few hours outside the body. Wild swings in temperature will cause sperm to die more quickly. Ideally, the cup should stay slightly below body temperature.
Get to clinic quickly: It is important to get the sample to the clinic as quickly as possible to ensure a timely analysis of the sample. If the elapsed time from collection to analysis is much longer than an hour motility scores drop dramatically.
Is it ok to get a little “help?”
Collecting a semen sample for analysis can be uncomfortable ethically and emotionally. Most cultures and religions have specific rules or customs surrounding sex, masturbation and procreation. Finding a way to honor your traditions while getting important information about your health and fertility can be daunting. Most clinics are aware of these issues and support patients by altering requirement and procedures to respect cultural and religious traditions. If you have strong concerns or reservations, you may want to seek out a religious leader or a fertility expert who shares your traditions and can help guide you through the process.
Even if cultural or religious ideals do not pose a conflict for collecting a sample, some men find it emotionally or biologically difficult to produce a sample on their own. Interestingly, studies have found that more sperm is present in the semen collected during intercourse. The body somehow knows it’s the real deal. This presents the argument for having your partner help you. Like collection at home, collecting with a partner complicates sample handling and requires a bit of extra preparation:
Use a collection condom: The highest concentration of sperm reside in the first few drops of ejaculate. For this reason, most clinics prefer that you obtain the sample without the help of your partner. If you are collecting with a partner, you will need to purchase a special collection. Regular condoms are designed to kill sperm. Do not use them when collecting a test sample. Collection condoms are designed to keep sperm healthy and available both from the doctor or for purchase online.
Pass on the lube: Like condoms, lubricants are designed to kill sperm cells. You may be able to get away with using PreSeed, a sperm friendly lubricant. It may interfere with other factors the doc is testing for, so ask first. Sorry to say it but if you can at all swing it, it’s really best to do this dry (sorry).