What Does “Low Sperm Motility” Actually Mean?

Low Sperm Motility

Picture it. The call comes in from the doctor, and the diagnosis is low sperm motility. That’s what’s slowing down all your baby making plans.

So, what the heck can you do about it? It turns out this relatively common issue doesn’t have to be a giant red stop sign on your fertility roadway. Here’s the lowdown on low sperm motility.

What’s low sperm motility, anyway?

OK, so you went through health class. You know sperm is the male sex’s contribution to conception. But what about motility? Medical speak for “movement,” motility refers to the sperm’s ability to move or “swim” out of the penis, through the vagina and on through his partner’s reproductive system, finally ending at the Fallopian tubes, where the woman’s egg is (hopefully) waiting to be fertilized.

Maybe your doctor has called it “asthenozoospermia” instead of low sperm motility. Either way, what they’re saying is an analysis of your sperm in the lab has come up with a bunch of slow swimmers. You’re far from alone—one Journal of Reproductive Systems study found as much as 81 percent of men with fertility issues had motility problems—but, let’s face it: slow speed complicates things when it comes to baby-making sex.

As Jamin Brahmbhatt, MD, a urologist at Orlando Health puts it, “Sperm are movers and shakers.” The better they are at this, the more likely they’ll make it to their ultimate destination—the egg.

How can doctors tell if I have low sperm motility?

When a man heads to his urologist’s office to find out if he’s got a fertility issue, they’re likely going to undergo a number of steps to get to the bottom of things, including:

  • Questions about family and health history
  • Physical examination
  • Blood tests
  • Semen analysis

It’s that last one that will help detect a motility issue, Dr. Brahmbhatt says. The sperm is examined under the microscope in a lab, where a technician evaluates how much (if any) of the semen sample contains motile sperm. The lower the number—you guessed it, the lower the chances of conception.

What can I do about low sperm motility?

This is where your doctor will have to look at more than just your semen to figure out what to do.

Low sperm motility can be caused by something called varicoceles, essentially a varicose vein in the testes. If that’s the case, says Marc Goldstein, M.D., director of the Center for Male Reproductive Medicine and Surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine/New York Presbyterian Hospital, they can perform a minor procedure to remove the vein, hopefully allowing sperm to flow freely and allowing for conception the old fashioned way. Studies show this can be successful, although not a cure-all treatment for every man.

Not crazy about the idea of someone poking around down there? You may not have to go that route. Sometimes lifestyle changes are all it takes to increase sperm motility:

  • Reduce your drinking: Scientists have found a link between alcohol usage and sperm quality, including motility. But there’s good news here too. Sperm quality for some men has been found to improve in as little as three months after he quits drinking.
  • Stop steroid use or testosterone use: It’s probably no surprise that the juice those jacked-up guys at the gym take can affect sperm. News headlines have been shouting about their dangers for years. But according to Dr. Brahmbhatt, even testosterone prescribed by a physician for a diagnosed medical condition can shut down sperm production. If you’re on anabolic steroids, your doctor would probably tell you to get off of them, stat. If you’re on prescribed hormones, talk to your doctor about your fertility plans.
  • Lose weight: The right weight comes down to health, and finding that healthy medium us up to a guy and his doctor. The science linking high BMI and lower quality sperm is mixed, with some researchers saying there’s an absolute tie and others pooh-poohing the correlation. Either way, it’s worth talking to your doctor to see if some exercise and diet changes might make a difference for your fertility.
  • Avoid the hot tub and tight undies: Nope, it’s not a myth. The testicles like to be “a little cooler” than the rest of your body, Dr. Brahmbhatt says. When they’re overheated, it really can affect your sperm.

If lifestyle changes don’t do the trick and there are no apparent varicoceles, there are other treatments available:

  • Intrauterine insemination (IUI): When a reproductive endocrinologist transfers sperm into a woman’s uterus to increase the chance of fertilization.
  • In vitro fertilization (IVF): When sperm is mixed with an egg in a lab setting to fertilize the egg “naturally” before transferring the resulting embryo into the woman’s uterus.
  • Intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI): Another IVF procedure, in which a single sperm cell is injected directly into the egg.

Bottom line

Learning you have low sperm motility can feel like a low blow. But the more you talk to your doctor, the more options you might find on the table.

Jeanne Sager

Jeanne Sager is a writer and photographer from upstate New York. She's strung words together for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and more.