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Apr 07, 2022
6 min read

Sperm motility: what is it, causes, testing, how to improve it

Sperm motility is the ability for sperm to move effectively to fertilize an egg. Low sperm motility is defined as less than 40% of sperm cells being motile (able to move well) on a semen analysis. You may be able to improve sperm motility by doing things like exercising, cutting back on smoking and alcohol, and keeping your cell phone away from your groin. Procedures like IVF and IUI may be helpful if low sperm motility affects fertility.

Disclaimer

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.

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.

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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: 

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. 
  • Exercise: One of the benefits of regular physical activity is that it may improve semen quality, including sperm count and sperm motility (Gaskins, 2015). 
  • 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). 
  • Reduce weight when necessary: A small study found that people with obesity who lost weight improved their sperm count and sperm motility (Håkonsen, 2011). 
  • 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. 

References

  1. Agarwal, A., Panner Selvam, M. K., Sharma, R., et al. (2018). Home sperm testing device versus laboratory sperm quality analyzer: comparison of motile sperm concentration. Fertility and Sterility, 110(7), 1277–1284. doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2018.08.049. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30424879/ 
  2. Elia, J., Imbrogno, N., Delfino, M., et al. (2010). The Importance of the Sperm Motility Classes – Future Directions. The Open Andrology Journal, 2, 42–43. Retrieved from https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/The-Importance-of-the-Sperm-Motility-Classes-Future-Elia-Imbrogno/513261ae0a11d524921f0ef642516117c8aebaeb#paper-header
  3. Fainberg, J. & Kashanian, J. A. (2019). Recent advances in understanding and managing male infertility. F1000 Research, 8, F1000 Faculty Rev-670. doi:10.12688/f1000research.17076.1. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6524745/
  4. Finelli, R., Mottola, F., & Agarwal, A. (2021). Impact of alcohol consumption on male fertility potential: A narrative review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(1), 328. doi:10.3390/ijerph19010328. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8751073/
  5. Francavilla, F., Sciarretta, F., Sorgentone, S., et al. (2009). Intrauterine insemination with or without mild ovarian stimulation in couples with male subfertility due to oligo/astheno- and/or teratozoospermia or antisperm antibodies: a prospective cross-over trial. Fertility and Sterility, 92(3), 1009–1011. doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2009.01.112. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19261275/
  6. Gaskins, A. J., Mendiola, J., Afeiche, M., et al. (2015). Physical activity and television watching in relation to semen quality in young men. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 49(4), 265–270. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2012-091644. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3868632/
  7. Håkonsen, L. B., Thulstrup, A. M., Aggerholm, A. S., et al. (2011). Does weight loss improve semen quality and reproductive hormones? Results from a cohort of severely obese men. Reproductive Health, 8, 24. doi:10.1186/1742-4755-8-24. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3177768/
  8. Hassanzadeh-Taheri, M., Khalili, M. A., Hosseininejad Mohebati, A., et al. (2022). The detrimental effect of cell phone radiation on sperm biological characteristics in normozoospermic. Andrologia, 54(1), e14257. doi:10.1111/and.14257. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34628682/
  9. Jia, W., Wang, C., & Yin, Y. (2021). Acupuncture for oligospermia and asthenozoospermia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Medicine, 100(48), e27816. doi:10.1097/MD.0000000000027816. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35049183/
  10. Komori, K., Tsujimura, A., Ishijima, S., et al. (2006). Comparative study of Sperm Motility Analysis System and conventional microscopic semen analysis. Reproductive Medicine and Biology, 5(3), 195–200. doi:10.1111/j.1447-0578.2006.00141.x. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5891812/
  11. Mohamad Al-Ali, B. & Eredics, K. (2017). Synergistic effects of cigarette smoking and varicocele on semen parameters in 715 patients. Wiener Klinische Wochenschrift, 129(13-14), 482–486. doi:10.1007/s00508-017-1199-6. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28439698/
  12. Moslemi, M. K. & Tavanbakhsh, S. (2011). Selenium-vitamin E supplementation in infertile men: effects on semen parameters and pregnancy rate. International Journal of General Medicine, 4, 99–104. doi:10.2147/IJGM.S16275. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3048346/
  13. O’Neill, C. L., Chow, S., Rosenwaks, Z., & Palermo, G. D. (2018). Development of ICSI. Reproduction (Cambridge, England), 156(1), F51–F58. doi:10.1530/REP-18-0011. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29636404/ 
  14. Perera, D. M., Katz, M., Heenbanda, S. R., & Marchant, S. (1996). Nitric oxide synthase inhibitor NG-monomethyl-L-arginine preserves sperm motility after swim-up. Fertility and Sterility, 66(5), 830–833. doi:10.1016/s0015-0282(16)58645-2. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8893694/ 
  15. Sharma, R., Harlev, A., Agarwal, A., et al. (2016). Cigarette Smoking and Semen Quality: A New Meta-analysis Examining the Effect of the 2010 World Health Organization Laboratory Methods for the Examination of Human Semen. European Urology, 70(4), 635–645. doi:10.1016/j.eururo.2016.04.010. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27113031/ 
  16. Wang, C. & Swerdloff, R. S. (2014). Limitations of semen analysis as a test of male fertility and anticipated needs from newer tests. Fertility and Sterility, 102(6), 1502–1507. doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2014.10.021. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4254491/ 
  17. World Health Organization (WHO). (2010). WHO laboratory manual for the examination and processing of human semen. Retrieved on Mar. 9, 2022 from http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/44261/9789241547789_eng.pdf;jsessionid=CF9A927CA056B87F9265193DDCD505D7?sequence=1