Egg freezing risks & realities
Updated: May 2, 2019
In our opinion (as previous freezers), egg freezing is an exciting opportunity and something worth checking out.
But it's definitely not for everyone. It's a decision only you and your doctor can make, together.
Is it risky?
While taking medication and during the retrieval procedure itself, you'll be under the care of trained fertility specialist doctors and nurses whose number one job it is to keep you safe.
But, as with any medical procedure, there are some potential long and short-term health risks - some to your physical health and some to your emotional wellbeing (i.e. how will you feel if it doesn't work?)
Unlike pregnancy or childbirth, it's not like you know hundreds of women who've had it done and are willing to chat it through with you.
So, we've lined up some of the realities and risks for you to bear in mind in advance of those conversations with your doctor...
REALITY #1: NOT ALL DATA IS CREATED EQUAL
Understanding the statistical outcomes is a CRUCIAL part of your preparation!
Though egg freezing has only become way more popular in recent years, it's not a new procedure by any measure - in fact, the first baby born from a frozen egg is now over 30 years old.
Since then, treatment protocols, equipment and attitudes have all evolved, so some of the stories and stats you hear from years ago don't accurately reflect outcomes now - just keep an awareness of this whilst doing your research. (And if you're unsure of anything - ask.)
REALITY #2: THE OUTCOME ISN'T SET IN STONE
Every body is different.
Even month to month your ovaries and eggs can act differently.
As such, there's no completely reliable way to predict how many eggs you get, the quality of those eggs etc. - as well as whether you'll experience any side effects (hello, PMS). Outcomes are different and a smidgen unpredictable for everyone.
That said, your own preliminary test results (blood tests and scan of your ovaries) will be interpreted by a fertility doctor to assess what's going on under the hood and to let you know what kind of outcome you can broadly expect.
There are also averages and data points by age that we can use as good rules of thumb.
We're busy collating solid data, research and perspectives from top doctors into a knowledge bank with the aim of giving you transparent and unbiased overview. (And we're constantly gathering more data from sources around the world, with the aim of building the world's first independent, unbiased, easy-to-navigate egg freezing portal for women like us. Watch this space!).
REALITY #3: YES, THERE CAN BE SHORT TERM SIDE EFFECTS
During an egg freezing cycle, you’ll be prescribed hormone injections for 8–11 days.
These hormones stimulate your ovaries to produce multiple mature eggs in one cycle (instead of just the one egg matured in a typical menstrual cycle), increasing the doctor’s chances of retrieving freeze-able eggs later.
Though generally not as extreme since newer, better and low-dose-same-result treatment protocols became available, these hormones can cause some of the following:
Discomfort - The side effects experienced are typically a result of the hormonal fluctuations caused by the medication, and are similar to PMS symptoms like headaches, mood swings, insomnia, hot or cold flashes, breast tenderness, bloating, or mild fluid retention. Additionally, because most of the medications used in egg freezing are given by injection, the injection site could become sore, red, or slightly bruised. (Switching up the injection site throughout the process can help with that.). For most women, that’s the extent of the egg freezing side effects they experience, if they experience any at all. And the side effects of the medication only last for the 8–11 days the medication is taken—they’re not long term.
Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS): In rare cases, the ovaries can be overstimulated by the hormones, resulting in symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, and nausea. OHSS is associated with swollen, enlarged ovaries and the collection of fluid in the abdominal cavity. When OHSS does happen, it is usually mild, and the discomfort resolves on its own, but very rarely it can develop into a more severe form, causing vomiting, a buildup of fluid in the abdomen and shortness of breath, and requiring immediate medical treatment. With careful dosing and monitoring however, most cases of OHSS can be avoided. Learn more>
After your course of fertility medications, you will receive a “trigger shot” which induces final maturation of eggs. About 36 hours later, you will visit the fertility clinic for the egg retrieval where the doctor removes the eggs and sends them into the lab for freezing. The egg retrieval procedure takes about 15–20 minutes, and doesn’t require cuts or stitches. It is considered a “minimally invasive” surgery in which a super thin needle is inserted through the vaginal wall and into the ovaries, where the eggs are waiting. Some light spotting (bleeding) after the procedure is normal and to be expected.
Discomfort: You may experience some pain when you wake up from the procedure, like a little soreness in the vaginal area or some abdominal cramping, like how you feel when you’re getting your period. The bloated feeling you might have had prior to the procedure will be immediately eased, though it may take a day or two to feel completely back to normal. But it’s rare that any egg freezing side effects last longer than a few days after the procedure. You’ll probably feel back to normal in a day or two, which is why we’ve left 1-2 days of recovery before you depart.
Grogginess: The sedative used is about the same as that used by dentists for wisdom tooth extractions. It’s a propofol-based sedation medication sometimes called “twilight” anesthesia or a “deep sleep”, that carries almost no risk of complications and doesn’t require a breathing tube. Still, you’ll probably feel groggy afterwards as it wears off (like a sleeping pill), and you’ll have a supportive ELANZA team member to escort you home. Bleeding or infection as a result of the procedure can happen but is extremely rare.
REALITY #4: EGG RETRIEVAL DOES NOT GENERALLY HAVE LONG TERM SIDE EFFECTS
Researchers have been testing fertility technologies for decades, and there’s no reliable evidence of long-term egg freezing side effects for women or future children conceived using the eggs.
PHEW! (We've done it...)
We're born with millions of eggs.
Each month one matures and is released down the fallopian tubes.
If this egg is not fertilized and implanted it is excreted during your period.
Think of this as a month in which (let's say) 12 eggs are taken out instead of 1.
Your ovaries are still left with many, many more with the potential to reach maturity - albeit eggs which are reducing in quality with every passing month.
REALITY #5: EGG FREEZING MIGHT NOT BE FOR EVERYONE
There may be egg freezing considerations or risks specific to you and your health.
Your doctor will take your full medical history. Along with preliminary tests, this will determine whether you are a good candidate for the procedure.
The doctors are there to guide you through the process and will provide you the most accurate and personalized information possible about egg freezing side effects or procedure-related risks at every step in the process.
REALITY #6: DON'T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ ON THE INTERNET
We can't be sure if President Trump is interested in egg freezing, but we're still calling plenty of fertility #fakenews out there. Here are just a few to look out for...
Fertility medications have not been linked to cancer - An extensive and comprehensive study published last summer found no increase in cases of breast cancer among women who had taken fertility medications, and similar studies have found no increase in other types of cancer, either.
Freezing your eggs now will not have any effect on your fertility in the future - If you hadn’t frozen your eggs, you’d still lose them in the natural process of monthly egg loss.
There’s no difference in the risk of birth defects, chromosomal anomalies, or pregnancy complications when using frozen eggs or embryos as compared to fresh eggs or embryos. So the latest science says.
REALITY #7: IT'S NOT QUANTITY THAT MATTERS, IT'S QUALITY
"How many did you get?!"
Get ready, that's the first question you'll hear from anyone you tell you froze your eggs.
You may have found that there are a variety of perspectives on exactly how many eggs you want to have retrieved in order to secure a live pregnancy in the future.
The more eggs you have frozen, the more chance of them making a baby in the future.
BUT what also really matters is how many of those are of a quality worth keeping - the elites. These are the eggs most likely to be abnormality-free, freeze well and make an embryo.
Quality is key because 95% of embryo health comes from the egg so, in theory, high quality eggs produce high quality embryos. Embryos must be strong enough to survive the early stages of development in order to have a successful pregnancy in the future. Poor quality eggs can can mean the difference between carrying your baby to term, or losing it in the first few weeks if it doesn’t implant properly.
Whilst freezing enough eggs to increase the overall chances of a successful birth in the future, studies show that more hormones might equate to more eggs, but those eggs start competing with each other and thus the quality is sacrificed.
As such, the current thinking is that freezing more than 20 eggs in one "cycle" could potentially impact quality, though more research is needed in this area.
REALITY #8: THIS IS AN INSURANCE POLICY, NOT A GUARANTEE
Egg freezing is a wonderful way to improve your odds of being able to futureproof your fertility, but - as every healthcare provider should be upfront in telling you - there are no guarantees.
The pre-screening tests are there to give you the best idea on how many eggs you might produce and how many end up being frozen but this is an indication using all the inferences available, rather than an absolute.
Also, whilst egg freezing and fertility technology is advancing at an incredible rate, there are situations down the line that can also affect the usability of your eggs, which you should be aware of.
Storage facility failure - this is very rare but has happened.
While studies indicate that there is no "expiration date" for your eggs, some countries like the UK have laws that prevent you from storing them for more than 10 years. This is an important consideration when choosing a country to store them. South Africa and the US have no limit.
The reality of needing multiple cycles. Depending on your age and the number/quality of eggs retrieved, there's a chance that you'll need to undergo multiple cycles in order to further futureproof your fertility. In almost all circumstances, your doctor will have a good indication of whether or not this is the case and will discuss your options accordingly. Just think, more chances to come on a fabulous retreat!
Of the eggs that are retrieved, some may not be suitable for freezing, some may not survive the freezing and thawing processes and some may not fertilize or develop into normal embryos. Of the embryos that are transferred, only some will result in a pregnancy, and some pregnancies miscarry. Freezing your eggs is no guarantee of a baby, it's a way of storing your own young eggs so that you have the potential to use them in IVF treatment (rather than, let's say, using donor eggs) if you ever need it. As such, IVF success rates are a good guideline.
Our goal in sharing this information is not to scare you off, but to make sure you are on the right page regarding any/all outcomes.
REALITY #9: THIS IS A SMART, STRONG CHOICE
We've gone through the exact same process you are going through right now.
It's totally normal if you're feeling overwhelmed, like you're coming across conflicting data and opinion and question yourself when faced with some scaremongering stories in the media, especially when facing parallel challenges in life, relationships and work.
Know this: reading this, considering it and educating yourself about your fertility health and your options is something to be proud of.
We don't have control over a lot of things - the curveballs life will throw us, whether things align to give us what we want when we want it.
So how about this: let go of the notion there is any such thing as full control.
Take a deep, nourishing breath in (yep, right now...deeper...fill up your lungs...) and now take all that worry and let it right out of you in a massive sigh, squeeze out every last drop, because you don't need it.
You're taking all the steps available to you.
Whatever the next one turns out to be, it'll be ok.
REALITY #10: THINGS ARE EVOLVING FAST IN FERTILITY!
We're on a continual mission to streamline all the information and make sure that you are able to formulate your own opinions/decisions so please let us know if you want to ask a question or flag up a cool new fertility development!