Egg freezing at a glance
- Egg freezing involves using medications to increase a woman’s production of eggs, extracting multiple eggs, freezing them using a process known as vitrification and storing them for later use.
- Egg freezing offers women the opportunity to preserve their fertility for years, as a woman’s eggs deteriorate in quality and quantity as she ages.
- Women can choose to freeze their eggs for social reasons, such as postponing a family while focusing on their career or until they find the right mate.
- Women facing a fertility-harming cancer treatment or other medical conditions can also freeze their eggs to preserve their fertility.
- Once a woman is ready to become pregnant with her frozen eggs, they will be thawed, then fertilized and implanted into the uterus via in vitro fertilization (IVF).
What is egg freezing?
Egg freezing, or oocyte preservation, requires cryopreservation, the process of cooling living cells and tissue to -320º Fahrenheit, which stops biologic activity. The eggs are then stored at that temperature for an indefinite period of time until the woman is ready to use them to achieve pregnancy through the IVF process.
Egg freezing has only recently become popular and widely accepted due to the vast improvement in the egg freezing process, which was still classified by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine as experimental until 2012. Ultimately, “social” egg freezing can provide women with a chance to expand their family later in life.
Who should consider freezing their eggs?
Women choose to freeze their eggs for social reasons, meaning they make the decision for personal reasons that can be as simple as not wanting to have children until later in life. They also have their eggs frozen as a means to preserve their fertility before undergoing cancer treatment that can render them infertile, as can certain other medical conditions and procedures.
The reason why women need to freeze their eggs when younger mostly relates to age. As women age the quantity and quality of their eggs decreases, which is often why women struggle to become and stay pregnant in their latter reproductive years.
According to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, female fertility in the average woman decreases gradually until age 32, at which time the decline becomes more significant. After age 37, female fertility decreases even more rapidly. Some women experience decreased fertility. We know that female fertility declines over time, and often refer to this as a woman’s biological clock.
When checking female fertility, we look at the levels of key hormones within the body to gauge fertility and we evaluate the antral follicle count to determine ovarian reserve. The antral follicles are small fluid-filled sacs within the ovaries that contain immature eggs. Ovarian reserve is a measure of the number of antral follicles, or potential eggs remaining in the ovaries. The number of eggs is not the sole determinant of whether a woman should freeze her eggs – her desire to prolong her fertility is – but it can assist her in developing a plan with her care provider.
The process of freezing eggs
Egg freezing and thawing are the most difficult of the fertility preservation options that include embryo and sperm freezing. This is due to the fragile biological nature of eggs. The primary problem is that eggs contain a lot of water, and when an egg is frozen ice crystals develop and can damage the egg. Sperm is more plentiful and less difficult to freeze, and embryos are less volatile during the freezing and thawing processes.
The egg freezing process is now mostly done by vitrification, a flash-freezing like process that does not result in ice crystals. It is safe, but due to the complexity of the procedure it’s important that it’s conducted by an experienced embryology lab, such as ours at Arizona Reproductive Medicine Specialists (ARMS), to help prevent the loss of viable eggs.
ARMS banks, meaning stores or cryopreserves eggs we freeze in our lab, with Donor Egg Bank USA for patient’s own use in the future. We thaw the woman’s frozen eggs when she is ready to attempt a pregnancy with IVF.
The thawing and fertilization of reproductive tissue including eggs can be done years after the tissue has been frozen. After eggs are carefully thawed according to the specific manner in which they were frozen, the IVF process begins. The eggs are fertilized with male sperm, and a resulting embryo is transferred to the woman’s uterus where it will hopefully implant and result in successful birth. IVF outcomes with frozen eggs are almost the same as with “fresh” eggs, or eggs that have been recently retrieved for implantation very soon, without ever being frozen.
Learn more about fertility preservation methods and cost at Arizona Reproductive medicine.