Sperm Granulomas. After vasectomy, sperm often leak from the vasectomy site or from a rupture in the epididymis, the tightly coiled, thin tube that connects the testicle to the vas deferens. Sperm elicit a very strong response from the immune system, which views them as foreign substances and attacks them. Sperm leakage therefore provokes an inflammatory reaction. The body forms pockets to trap the sperm in scar tissue and inflammatory cells. Firm balls of tissue about 1/2 inch in diameter then form; these are known as sperm granulomas. They occur in about 60% of vasectomy patients.
Although they rarely cause serious problems, one study reported that sperm granulomas were troublesome in 15% of patients. In about 3 - 5% of cases, sperm granulomas obstruct the already blocked ends of the vas deferens and generate pressure build-up in the epididymis. This can cause a rupture from the pressure of the fluid. In such cases, the testicles may become enlarged and painful. A damaged epididymis can be repaired, but if the patient later wishes a reversal of the vasectomy, disruption of this tiny tube makes success much less likely.
Epididymitis. Epididymitis occurs when an inflammation at the site of the vasectomy causes swelling of the epididymis. This condition may occur within the first year and can be treated with heat and anti-inflammatory medications. It usually clears up within a week.
Long-Term Psychologic Reactions
The male reproductive structures include the penis, the scrotum, the seminal vesicles and the prostate.
Positive Effects. Surveys indicate that about 90% of men are satisfied with vasectomy and that the feeling persists. One study reported even higher satisfaction in the partners, with more than 95% of wives reporting satisfaction with the procedure. Younger and older couples, with or without children, were all equally likely to have favorable reactions to vasectomies. Most men who have vasectomies feel relieved that the worry about pregnancy is over, and most couples respond well to their new-found contraceptive freedom.
Negative Effects. Some men go through a brief period of self-consciousness, wondering whether others notice some difference in their masculinity. About half of vasectomy patients keep their operations a secret. They may believe that vasectomy is tainted by the stigma of emasculation and that knowledge of it would degrade them in the eyes of their friends and family. For most men, this tentativeness passes quickly.
In a few men, however, problems of poor self-image persist and require counseling. Some may experience depressed and angry emotions. They may actually require a mourning period over the loss of their reproductive ability (similar to what some women go through during menopause). These negative feelings usually resolve over time as the patient moves on to the next stage of his life.
A small percentage of couples experience serious difficulties with the adjustment. Their emotional distress most often manifests itself in sexual dysfunction, such as impotence, premature ejaculation, or painful intercourse. In such cases, however, the vasectomy is probably the catalyst but not the cause of such extreme reactions. Studies have indicated that men who experience erectile dysfunction after vasectomy are more likely to have female partners who are unable to accept the operation.
Research indicates that up to a third of men have some pain in or around the testes that lasts longer than 3 months. In a study of 700,000 vasectomized patients, up to 10% reported long-term chronic pain around the testicles. In one survey, 19% of subjects reported chronic pain that was simply a nuisance, and 12% reported more severe pain. Another study that followed men for an average of 19 months reported that 27% had some pain in the testicles, although, in the great majority, the pain was brief.
Causes of Chronic Pain. In many cases the source of the pain after vasectomy is not known, although some of the following conditions may be a source of pain:
- Scarring from the surgery
- Obstruction of part of the epididymis that causes swelling in another section
- Pinched nerves
- In about 1% of all vasectomies, the epididymis becomes so congested with dead sperm and fluid that the patient feels a dull ache in his testicles. This condition, called chronic orchialgia, usually disappears within 6 months.
- Some experts believe that granulomas may cause more chronic pain than generally believed. Other experts point out, however, that open-ended procedures, which increase the risk for granuloma production, result in less pain than closed-ended techniques that produce fewer granulomas.
Treatments for Chronic Pain. Surgery may be required if time or more conservative measures fail to relieve pain. Procedures may include:
- Removal of the epididymis and surrounding tissue tends to be effective if the pain is in the scrotum (the sac that contains the testes) and if abnormalities in the epididymis can be observed using ultrasound.
- A surgical procedure that blocks nerves in the sperm cord can bring relief in severe cases.
- Surgery to reverse vasectomy (vasovasostomy) may relieve chronic pain. In one study, nearly 70% of men became pain free, although researchers were unable to discover any biologic differences after the procedure that might explain such relief.
Prostate and Testicular Cancer
Prostate Cancer. Prostate cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death among American men. About 30% of all American men will develop at least localized prostate cancer at some time in their lives. Long-term high-normal levels of testosterone may be associated with an increased risk for prostate cancer. Because testosterone levels remain higher for a longer period in men who had vasectomy, experts have been concerned that such men have a greater chance for developing the cancer.Click the icon to see an image of prostate cancer.
A 2002 review indicated a 10% increase in risk for every 10 years after the procedure. The authors of the study reported, however, that such increased risk may not be caused by vasectomy since the association was small and could be due to bias. Most recent studies report no higher danger. A rigorous 2002 study from New Zealand, which has the highest vasectomy rates in the world, found no increased risk of prostate cancer from the procedure, even 25 years after the operation. Another 2002 study, in fact, reported a lower risk for prostate cancer in men who had had vasectomies.
It is possible that the higher rates reported in the early studies may simply be due to earlier prostate screening in men who have had vasectomies. Indeed one study reported that about 25% of doctors screened men with vasectomies earlier for prostate cancer than those without the operation.
An expert panel has recommended that vasectomy reversal is not warranted to prevent prostate cancer and that screening criteria for prostate cancer should be the same for men with and without vasectomies. Men with a family history of prostate cancer can discuss the risks and benefits of vasectomy with their doctors, although the weight of evidence to date indicates there is no link between vasectomy and prostate cancer.
Testicular Cancer. There have also been some concerns that vasectomy could increase the risk of testicular cancer. However, studies show there is no association between the two.
Immune System Changes
Vasectomy is known to provoke immune system changes.
Anti-sperm Antibodies. Sperm continue to be produced after vasectomy but are disposed of in the body. In some men the immune system mistakes these sperm as foreign proteins (antigens) and produces anti-sperm antibodies that are designed to target and interfere with sperm's motility (ability to move). Up to two thirds of vasectomized men develop such anti-sperm antibodies. Infections in the genital tract, such as orchitis or sexually transmitted diseases, increase the risk for anti-sperm antibodies. The anti-sperm response itself appears to be a problem only if a man wishes to reverse the vasectomy.
Heart Disease and Other Changes. Some experts are concerned that changes in the immune system might cause damage in other parts of the body, including contributing to heart disease. Animal research has suggested that heart disease accelerates after vasectomy. However, a large 2002 follow-up study of men who had vasectomies found no increase in risk for heart disease, stroke, or peripheral artery disease, even after more than 20 years. Nor did researchers find any evidence of greater risk for hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) or inflammation, which play a role in cardiovascular disease.Click the icon to see an image of atherosclerosis.
Some experts have voiced concern that vasectomy may increase the risk for the bone-thinning condition known as osteoporosis. However, evidence to date does not support an association.
Studies suggest that men younger than their mid-40s who have vasectomies have twice the risk for kidney stones as their peers who have not had vasectomies. The increased risk persists for up to 14 years after the operation. Kidney stones are not life threatening, but they can be extremely painful. Drinking plenty of fluids is the best way to prevent kidney stones.Click the icon to see an image of kidney stones.