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Egg freezing, which also goes by the name oocyte cryopreservation, can help you overcome fertility challenges and aid family planning. It’s also an option if you want children in the future, but don’t necessarily want to have them right now.
During egg freezing, the eggs (a.k.a., oocytes) you produce in your ovaries are retrieved and cooled until frozen. This indefinitely extends their viability so that they can be used later during in vitro fertilization (IVF) (Mesen, 2016; Jang, 2017).
While the procedure is generally safe, it can be costly and is not always successful right away (Alteri, 2019). Let’s learn a little more about egg freezing and whether it may be a good option for you.
What is egg freezing?
Egg freezing is used as a form of fertility preservation where a person’s mature eggs (oocytes) are retrieved and frozen so that they can be thawed later in order to, hopefully, get someone pregnant (Alteri, 2019).
Freezing your eggs may sound a little like science fiction. But if living cells or tissues are frozen and thawed using proper techniques, they can survive this process without becoming damaged. Basically, they’re unchanged (Jang, 2017).
Why do people freeze their eggs?
People who have their eggs frozen do so for different reasons. Some of these reasons are considered “medical,” and some are termed “social” or “elective” procedures (Gürtin, 2019).
Social or elective egg freezing
This is the most common reason for egg freezing. It refers to women who choose to freeze their eggs as a safeguard against age-related infertility (Gürtin, 2019). The idea is that freezing your eggs when you’re younger and more fertile may help you get pregnant later in life, when you may not be as fertile.
Medical egg freezing
These are situations in which eggs are frozen prior to medical procedures or treatments that may limit a woman’s future fertility, such as cancer treatments (Gürtin, 2019).
Clinical egg freezing
In this situation, a person undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) has a number of eggs frozen in case the initial implantation does not result in a healthy pregnancy or in case the fertilized eggs turn out to have chromosomal abnormalities (Gürtin, 2019).
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Incidental egg freezing
This refers to situations in which, following egg retrieval, the sperm needed for IVF egg fertilization is not available. For example, if a woman’s partner is, for some reason, unable to go to the fertility clinic, their eggs are frozen temporarily to preserve them (Gürtin, 2019).
Egg freezing success rates
By some estimates, the survival rate for oocytes following freezing and re-thawing is somewhere between 90% and 97%. But the egg’s survival doesn’t automatically guarantee a successful pregnancy (Petropanagos, 2015).
The chances that freezing your eggs will eventually result in a live birth vary depending on your age—both when your eggs are frozen and when you choose to attempt pregnancy. Different studies have found different success rates, but experts agree that the younger you are when your eggs are frozen, the greater your odds of a successful pregnancy.
By some estimates, live birth rates among women who have their eggs frozen in their 20s or early 30s can be as high as 85%. On the other hand, this live birth rate falls to 20% among women 36 or older at the time of egg freezing. Generally, the more eggs are retrieved, the higher the probability of pregnancy since it means several embryos may be available for placement in the uterus. (Cobo, 2017; Baldwin, 2020).
This is noteworthy because, according to some research, the average age of women who undergo egg freezing is between 36 and 38 years old (Alteri, 2019).
How much does egg freezing cost?
The cost of egg freezing can vary widely. Some analyses have found that egg freezing costs range from $1,000 to $18,000, not including the annual cost of storing the frozen eggs. But these numbers can vary from state to state. Also, in most cases, U.S. insurers do not cover the procedure (Inhorn, 2018).
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The egg-freezing process
Egg freezing begins with egg retrieval.
First, you’ll go through several weeks of ovarian stimulation treatment. This is a series of hormone injections meant to encourage the growth of mature oocytes. Once you’re finished with your injections, you’ll undergo a surgical procedure called a transvaginal oocyte retrieval or oocyte (egg) pickup (Choe, 2021).
During the oocyte pickup, an ultrasound device equipped with a needle is inserted into your vagina. Using the ultrasound device to see, your surgeon will push the needle through your vaginal wall and extract the fluid and eggs from your ovarian follicles (Singhal, 2017).
Next, your eggs are typically frozen using a process known as vitrification. This is a very rapid cooling process that prevents the formation of ice crystals or other threats to the health of the living cells (Petropanagos, 2015). Your frozen eggs are then stored, often in liquid nitrogen, until needed.
The risks and side effects of egg freezing
Researchers have not found any link to higher rates of congenital disabilities, pregnancy problems, or any other health concerns for mother or child regarding using eggs that have been frozen for years.
In terms of health risks for the woman, pretty much all of them stem from the egg retrieval process, but the egg retrieval procedure itself is generally safe. Research has found that less than 1% of women who undergo egg retrieval surgery experience more severe complications. The most common of these complications are internal bleeding and infections, both of which tend to be caused by the needle puncture wound in the vaginal wall (Alteri, 2019; ESHRE, 2019).
The surgery can cause some pain, bloating, cramping, spotting, and abdominal tenderness. Common over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen can help with these symptoms, which tend to last for a few days. Typically, you’ll be able to return to work and light activity after 24 hours and can resume normal activity within a few days (ESHRE, 2019).
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While the egg-retrieval procedure is low-risk, ovarian stimulation treatments do carry some risks. Some women may develop OHSS or ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome. This can cause swelling of the reproductive organs, as well as bleeding, pain, and other symptoms. In very rare cases, it can be deadly.
Fortunately, healthcare providers tend to monitor people undergoing egg retrieval closely, so OHSS is often detected and treated early and successfully (Timmons, 2019).
Should you freeze your eggs?
The decision to freeze one’s eggs is a complicated one. Every person’s situation is different. But experts say it’s important to weigh costs and risks alongside likely outcomes (Alteri, 2019).
Researchers have noted that most women who have their eggs frozen do not ultimately use them. One survey of women who underwent egg freezing found that only 11 out of 183 eventually used their oocytes, and just three ultimately had a child. Common reasons for non-use included not wanting to be a single parent, preferring to conceive naturally, and not wanting to use a sperm donor (Hodes-Wertz, 2013).
On the other hand, consistent technological and procedural improvements have led to steady gains in success rates. Depending on your age, financial situation, health, and other factors, egg freezing may be the right choice for you (Alteri, 2019).
- Alteri, A., Pisaturo, V., Nogueira, D., & D’Angelo, A. (2019). Elective egg freezing without medical indications. Acta obstetricia et gynecologica Scandinavica, 98(5), 647–652. doi: 10.1111/aogs.13573. Retrieved from https://obgyn.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdfdirect/10.1111/aogs.13573
- Baldwin, K. & Culley, L. (2020). Women’s experience of social egg freezing: perceptions of success, risks, and ‘going it alone’. Human fertility (Cambridge, England), 23(3), 186–192. doi: 10.1080/14647273.2018.1522456. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30381975/
- Choe, J., Archer, J. S., & Shanks, A. L. (2021). In Vitro Fertilization. [Updated 2021, Sep 9]. In StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK562266/
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- ESHRE Working Group on Ultrasound in ART, D’Angelo, A., Panayotidis, C., Amso, N., Marci, R., Matorras, R., et al. (2019). Recommendations for good practice in ultrasound: oocyte pick up. Human Reproduction Open, 2019(4), hoz025. doi: 10.1093/hropen/hoz025. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31844683/
- Gürtin, Z. B., Shah, T., Wang, J., & Ahuja, K. (2019). Reconceiving egg freezing: insights from an analysis of 5 years of data from a UK clinic. Reproductive Biomedicine Online, 38(2), 272–282. doi: 10.1016/j.rbmo.2018.11.003. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30655074/
- Hodes-Wertz, B., Druckenmiller, S., Smith, M., & Noyes, N. (2013). What do reproductive-age women who undergo oocyte cryopreservation think about the process as a means to preserve fertility?. Fertility and Sterility, 100(5), 1343–1349. doi: 10.1016/j.fertnstert.2013.07.201. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23953326/
- Inhorn, M. C., Birenbaum-Carmeli, D., Westphal, L. M., Doyle, J., Gleicher, N., Meirow, D., et al. (2018). Medical egg freezing: How cost and lack of insurance cover impact women and their families. Reproductive Biomedicine & Society Online, 5, 82–92. doi: 10.1016/j.rbms.2017.12.001. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2405661818300017
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- Mesen, T. B., Mersereau, J. E., Kane, J. B., & Steiner, A. Z. (2015). Optimal timing for elective egg freezing. Fertility and Sterility, 103(6), 1551–6.e64. doi: 10.1016/j.fertnstert.2015.03.002. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25881876/
- Petropanagos, A., Cattapan, A., Baylis, F., & Leader, A. (2015). Social egg freezing: risk, benefits and other considerations. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association Journal = Journal de l’Association Medicale Canadienne, 187(9), 666–669. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.141605. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25869870/
- Singhal, H., Premkumar, P. S., Chandy, A., Kunjummen, A. T., & Kamath, M. S. (2017). Patient Experience with Conscious Sedation as a Method of Pain Relief for Transvaginal Oocyte Retrieval: A Cross Sectional Study. Journal of Human Reproductive Sciences, 10(2), 119–123. doi: 10.4103/jhrs.JHRS_113_16. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28904501/
- Timmons, D., Montrief, T., Koyfman, A., & Long, B. (2019). Ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome: A review for emergency clinicians. The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, 37(8), 1577–1584. doi: 10.1016/j.ajem.2019.05.018. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31097257/
Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.