Is your mobile phone a sperm zapper?

Study looks at the possibilty of electromagnetic radiation from hand-held devices affecting sperm quality.

HAND-held technology can be a real pain in the neck sometimes, but can it decrease men’s fertility rates?

A team from the University of Exeter in United Kingdom, led by Dr Fiona Matthews, conducted a meta study (a systemic review of similar studies) last year and found that cell phone usage was associated with an 8.1% decrease in sperm motility (how fast the little guys swim) and 10% increase in sperm viability (if the fellas can make it to the egg alive).

Published in the journal Environment International, the study suggested electromagnetic radiation was to blame. It analysed 10 separate studies on sperm quality involving 1,492 men.

These included laboratory tests on sperm exposed to mobile phone radiation and questionnaires of men at fertility clinics.

The study has admitted it is heterogeneous as the patients came from different backgrounds and locations.

Data was only taken from fertility clinics and not the normal population, which could lead to inaccurate results.

There are also no details of where the phones were placed, whether it was in the pocket or near the scrotum, whether the respondents were wearing Bluetooth devices or whether the devices were all smart phones.

In this particular study, it says that if you hold the phone to your face, the skin surface temperature goes up by 2.3°C after six minutes of mobile use.

“You don’t hold your phone next to your scrotum when you make a telephone call!” retorts consultant urologist Dr Peter Ng Eng Pin.

“They also postulate that the problem is due to electromagnetic waves, but if you wear a pouch, the phone is not in contact at all with the scrotum.

“There are too many confounding factors, so the issue of temperature does not arise. The normal temperature of the scrotum is 34°C and there is a reason why the testicles are left hanging outside. The 3°C difference from the internal core temperature is needed for the sperm to thrive. It allows for good spermatogenesis (process of sperm cell development).”

The World Health Organization provides a definition of a normal sperm count to be at least 20 million per millilitre.

“It’s a huge range. A loss of 8% in terms of vitality is not going to make any difference. In any normal day, if the person is stressed, the sperm count can be zero because you have a huge variability in sperm count. So, it’s hard to correlate a loss of vitality of about 8% with actual sub-vitality in a male,” he explains.

If a couple have been trying to get pregnant for 24-96 months and they have zero motile sperms, the urologist says there is still a chance, and nature has proved this time and again. If you have a million motile sperms, you have a 25% possibility of getting pregnant.

Dr Ng says, “So we can’t jump and tell people not to use hand phones, especially our young population. I never ask my patients with low sperm count about where they put their phones or if they use hand phones, I’m more worried about them getting brain cancer, which is a bigger issue from the radiation.

“If you’re using laptops and place it on your lap, the prolonged heat can cook your sperms – that may also be a bigger problem than the hand phone.

“Physiologically, anything that increases temperature of the scrotum from 34°C to 37°C or higher would impair sperm. That’s why we encourage those with infertility to wear boxer shorts, which frees up the fellows to dangle around a bit better. Cold showers are also good.”

Dr Ng adds that there is a lot of myth out there on improving sperm count.

“I wish there were medications that would reliably raise the sperm count, but there has not been a single agent that works. There are a lot of well-touted ‘cures’, but no medical products. Some patients even go for traditional massages, but of course, they won’t tell the doctor.”

Factors affecting low sperm count include high temperatures, being born with certain syndromes, chromosomal defects, infection in your testicles and mumps (the biggest culprit, although a lot of people don’t realise this).

“If your ‘factory’ is damaged, there are not a lot of things you can do about it,” says Dr Ng.

“Instead, we look for correctable factors. If the defects are chromosomal, we can’t do anything. If you have blockages in your tract, we can sometimes do a bypass. We can also extract the sperm and store it. For men, it’s akin to milking the cow and finding that sperm.

“Some people may have had a vasectomy – this is an area that can be corrected. Infections can also lower sperm count unless it’s treated with antibiotics early. We also have rare cases of anti-sperm antibodies which act against your sperm, but this is treatable with steroids.”

Men should also be aware of a condition called varicosis, which is a common condition characterised by one or more tortuous, abnormally dilated vessels, usually in the legs or the lower trunk.

It most often occurs in persons between 30 and 60 years of age. Varicosis may be caused by congenital defects of the valves or walls of the veins or by congestion and increased intraluminal pressure resulting from prolonged standing, poor posture, pregnancy, abdominal tumour or chronic systemic disease.

“This is more prevalent than the hand phone issue. There is abnormal dilatation of your veins because of the loss of valves. The valves are supposed to push blood upwards towards your heart and return it. But, because you don’t have those valves, when you stand up, all this blood comes down and pools into your testicles, bringing the core temperature up so it causes low motility,” he says.

So, how many sperms are destroyed in high temperatures?

“We have no idea as no one has done any study on the correlation between sperm temperature and sperm death. It’s impossible to do those studies as we’ve got to get live people and cook up their testicles!” chuckles Dr Ng.

Women are born with about 480 eggs, and once depleted, they have no chance of conceiving naturally.

“Men are eternal, and can produce forever, but the sperm quality and quantity goes down with age. We continue to produce the ‘little soldiers’ for a lifetime. The more you have sex, the more sperm you have, but some men think of saving it for the ‘fertile period’”.

“After all, the penis is a muscle, so it needs to be toned – it needs a lifetime of exercise!”

So men, if you’ve got low or no sperm count, see your urologist to check if there is a reversible cause.


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