Sperm motility: what is it, causes, testing, how to improve it
LAST UPDATED: Apr 07, 2022
4 MIN READ
HERE'S WHAT WE'LL COVER
Motility is another word for having the ability to move. Sperm motility refers to a sperm’s ability to move through the reproductive tract in order to fertilize an egg. It is an important factor in overall sperm health and male fertility.
Let’s take a closer look at sperm motility, including why it matters, how to test it, and what to do if your motility is low.
What is sperm motility?
Healthy sperm should move quickly and propel themselves forward (progressive motility) to find and penetrate an egg. Sometimes, sperm doesn’t move the way it should—which could mean it’s sluggish and moves slowly or doesn’t move at all. If you have poor sperm motility, it’s called asthenospermia or asthenozoospermia (Elia, 2010).
Why is sperm motility important?
Sperm motility is important because it’s an essential part of achieving a successful pregnancy. Motility isn’t the only factor that matters in fertility, though.
Other parameters, like sperm count and sperm shape (sperm morphology), also make a difference. But a sperm that’s unable to move forward quickly won’t be able to reach an egg (ovum) to fertilize it.
What causes low sperm motility?
Many factors may contribute to low sperm motility, including:
Smoking, especially if it’s more than 10 cigarettes a day (Mohamad Al-Ali, 2017)
High alcohol intake (Finelli, 2022)
Radiation exposure from cell phones (Hassanzadeh-Taheri, 2022)
Varicocele (enlargement of the veins in the testes)
Sperm motility test
A healthcare provider can assess sperm motility by doing a semen analysis. They will evaluate a semen sample (from ejaculate) in a lab using a microscope or an automated device like the Sperm Motility Analysis System (SMAS). This allows them to determine how much sperm in the semen has normal motility versus how much has poor or no motility (Wang, 2014; Komori, 2006).
Not everyone is comfortable ejaculating into a cup in a medical office or laboratory, but there are solutions to this concern. Some self-testing devices are available that allow you to get accurate motility test results without leaving the comfort of your home (Agarwal, 2018).
It may be a good idea to check with a healthcare provider before taking a home sperm motility test or ask them to help you interpret your results.
Normal sperm motility vs. low sperm motility
According to the WHO (World Health Organization), normal sperm motility is >40% (WHO, 2010). This means at least 40% of the sperm move effectively. Low sperm motility refers to less than 40% motile sperm.
Remember that a single number isn’t everything. Having sperm motility greater than 40% doesn’t necessarily mean you’re fertile, and having a number less than this doesn’t guarantee infertility. Other semen qualities like sperm count and sperm morphology (shape) play a role, as do many other factors.
How to improve sperm motility
Low sperm motility isn’t always permanent. There are things you can do to improve sperm motility, including:
Stop smoking: Smoking can contribute to low sperm count, poor sperm motility, and poor sperm morphology (Sharma, 2016). Cutting back on smoking may improve sperm quality.
Drink less alcohol: Alcohol may decrease sperm count and interfere with sperm motility, so reducing your alcohol intake may improve semen quality (Finelli, 2022).
Be careful with your cell phone: Studies show that radiation from cell phones can interfere with sperm count, sperm motility, and sperm morphology, so it’s best to keep your phone away from your groin area (Hassanzadeh-Taheri, 2022).
Treat underlying conditions: Conditions like varicocele can affect sperm motility. Sperm motility usually improves once the varicocele is treated (Fainberg, 2019).
Acupuncture: Some people try acupuncture to improve sperm motility, but there’s no scientific evidence that it works (Jia, 2021).
Supplements: There’s some evidence that certain supplements, like L-arginine and selenium, may slightly improve semen quality and sperm motility, though there isn’t much data to support this (Perera, 1996; Moslemi, 2011).
Getting pregnant with low sperm motility
If low sperm motility causes symptoms like male factor infertility, assisted reproductive technologies (ART) have made it possible to still get pregnant. These include:
IUI (intrauterine insemination): With IUI, a healthcare provider injects sperm directly into the uterus, so it doesn’t need to move through the vagina and cervix to reach an egg. This procedure is often successful in people with low sperm motility (Francavilla, 2009).
IVF (in vitro fertilization): With IVF, a reproductive endocrinologist will combine the sperm and egg outside the body before inserting the fertilized egg into the woman’s uterus. This may involve mixing the sperm and egg and allowing them to combine on their own or using a procedure called ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection).
ICSI (Intracytoplasmic sperm injection): In ICSI, a healthcare professional uses a tiny needle to inject a single sperm directly into an egg so that the sperm doesn’t need to travel at all. This is a common procedure used for low sperm motility (O’Neill, 2018).
Sperm motility is an important factor contributing to fertility, but there are things you can do to improve motility and procedures that can help fertilize an egg if your sperm motility is low. Your healthcare provider can advise you if you have questions about sperm motility.
If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
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