If you’re familiar with “varicose veins” in the legs you can understand varicoceles as the same condition, dilated (enlarged) group of veins, but in the scrotum. The dilated veins are filled with excess blood.
First, a little background on how the blood flow works and its relation to varicoceles. Every part of the body needs oxygen. Blood carries oxygen to various parts of the body through arteries. Arteries have muscular walls that pump the blood away from the heart.
Veins are the channels that bring the blood back to the heart, and they do not have thick, muscular walls. Their walls are fairly thin, and the blood in them moves more passively. It is pushed back toward the heart through the pressure of the blood being pumped away from the heart and the movement of the muscles and other structures surrounding the veins pushing against the vein walls.
Interspersed along the veins are a series of one-way valves. These valves allow the blood to flow toward the heart but stop the blood from “slipping” backwards. If these valves are not working properly, blood will flow backwards and, because of gravity, the blood will collect in the most dependent (lowest) part of the pathway. In people who have large varicose veins in their legs, the valves are not functioning properly and the blood is actually pooling in their legs. Because of this, they will find that after standing for long periods of time, the blood has collected in their legs, giving them a heavy, dragging feeling. Men with varicoceles may notice a heavy, dragging, aching feeling in the scrotum (“ball sack”) at the end of the day. There, too, the valves in the veins that drain the blood from the testicles (the internal-spermatic veins) are not functioning properly and allow the blood to collect.
Varicoceles most commonly develop during adolescence when the testes grow dramatically and therefore need more blood delivered to supply the increased need for oxygen and nutrients. Since more blood is going into the testes, there is also more blood draining away from them. If the valves are not functioning properly, the extra blood cannot be handled by the veins, and the blood pools in the scrotum.
If large varicoceles develop in a man after adolescence, he must be examined to make sure that there is no tumor in the abdomen pushing and compressing the veins, making the blood unable to properly flow back to the heart.
If you have this condition here are some of the ways it may be affecting you:
• Varicoceles may cause infertility through a significant decrease in the quality and quantity of the sperm.
• Varicoceles may cause damage to the testicles; they may not grow appropriately.
This damage is progressive; it will often worsen over time. If an adolescent has a one-sided varicocele, the testis on that side may not develop as much as the other side and may be significantly smaller. This is a serious consideration because smaller testes generally produce significantly less sperm than normalsized testes. If the varicocele is repaired during adolescence, the testis may experience catch-up growth and normalize in size. If it is repaired at a later age, the testis will not improve in size, though it may often improve in sperm production. The sperm production, however, will still not improve to the same extent it would have had it been repaired earlier.
• Varicoceles may cause discomfort leading to a heavy, dragging feeling in the scrotum.
• The testis, besides making sperm, also makes testosterone, the main male hormone. Testosterone is responsible for a man’s “secondary male
characteristics” (i.e., increased muscle mass and tone, level of sexual interest, body hair). Varicoceles can damage the cells that make testosterone and may lead to a decreased overall testosterone level.
Fifteen percent of all men have varicoceles. (This was measured by examining military recruits, who represented a good cross section of men mostly before they had tried to father children.). However, forty percent of men who are experiencing “primary infertility” (have never fathered a biological child) have varicoceles.
Eighty percent of men with secondary fertility (they have fathered at least one biological child, but are not currently able to do so) have varicoceles. This may be due to the fact that varicoceles cause progressive damage to the testicle and a progressive decrease in the quality and quantity of sperm produced.
Of those men who have varicoceles, forty-five percent have varicoceles on both sides; fifty percent have a left-side varicocele; and five percent have a varicocele on the right side alone.
Although we know that varicoceles definitely decrease fertility we’re still not positive why this is so, but there are several theories:
• Increased temperature of the testicles: The testicles are located in the scrotum, which effectively regulates their temperature. They are maintained at a temperature slightly below body temperature. (This is probably why they are located outside the body rather than inside the body where they clearly would be better protected.) In cold weather, men may notice their testicles move close into the body as the muscles in the scrotum wall (the cremasteric muscles) tighten. In warm weather, the cremasteric muscles relax and lengthen, allowing the testicles to hang away from a man’s body and cool down.
Some babies are born without their testicles having descended into their scrotum. They are trapped somewhere in their bodies and constantly exposed to
body temperature. This is so harmful for the testicles that if they remain there past puberty, they will stop producing sperm altogether and have a higher chance of developing cancer. Therefore, if a boy’s testicles do not descend into the scrotum by the time he is 12 months old, they should be surgically brought down and placed into the scrotum.
Varicoceles are a group of dilated veins filled with blood, which surround the testicles. The blood is at body temperature, and if the testes are near these veins, they will be kept at a higher temperature than is beneficial for them. Even if a man has a varicocele only on one side, the whole scrotum is warmed by the blood and both testicles can be negatively affected.
In general, larger testicles make more sperm than smaller testicles. Often, however, you see men who have a large one-sided varicocele that has damaged
the testis on one side, making it smaller. The small testis makes significantly less sperm than the normal one. However, even in the “normal” one, the sperm quality is often very low. The varicocele is not only damaging the testis on the side where it is found, but also suppressing the sperm production on the opposite (better) side.
When a varicocele is repaired, the blood is no longer able to flow back into the scrotum. This affects not only the testes on that side, but also the opposite side.
With this normalization of temperature, there may be some dramatic improvement in sperm production. It is likely that this improvement comes mostly
from improved production in the larger, better testicle.
• Increased waste products back-flowing into the testicle. The veins draining the testicles connect into larger veins. On the left side, they drain into the kidney vein, which is draining blood from the kidney. The blood from the kidney carries waste products, which may then drain backwards into the scrotum and collect there. This may negatively affect sperm production.
It used to be thought that a varicocele would result in a stress pattern that would appear in the semen analysis (i.e., a decreased percentage of moving sperm or sperm with abnormally shaped heads). Recent studies conclude that varicoceles affect virtually all of the parameters in a semen analysis (i.e., the concentration, motility, forward progression, and morphology). The varicoceles also affect the functioning of the sperm, although this cannot be tested by a routine semen analysis. Very specialized testing of the sperm functioning may be performed, although this is expensive and its use is debated.
How are varicoceles diagnosed? Let’s go into a few of the ways:
Many men know they have a varicocele because they can feel the mass of dilated veins in the scrotum. This feels like a sac of worms or spaghetti. These men have larger varicoceles. They may also notice:
The testicle is smaller on that side.
They have discomfort in that testicle or side of the scrotum.
During a physical examination a physician may diagnose a varicocele. It can most clearly be felt when a man is standing and again, it will feel like a bag of spaghetti. It may disappear when a man lies down (as the weight of the blood and the veins is no longer pushing down past the malfunctioning valves into the scrotum). In a standing position, the man may also be asked to bear down (like he is having a bowel movement). The physician may feel an impulse when the blood pushes backwards (because of the increased pressure inside the abdomen) into the scrotum.
Ultrasound: The duplex ultrasound is currently considered the best non-invasive way to identify or confirm the presence of varicoceles. The duplex ultrasound has two parts.
First a thorough ultrasound of the testis is performed. The diameter of the veins can be measured. Other abnormalities may be identified. A recent study found that thirty one percent of men