The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given the thumbs up for the October 2016 release of an at-home device called the Trak Male Fertility Testing System. The test allows men to measure and track their sperm counts as "low," "moderate," or "optimal" based on World Health Organization guidelines.
The whole thing actually seems like a very grown-up version of the chemistry set you got for your 7th birthday: After collecting a semen sample in one of the 20 disposable cups that comes with the kit, the user puts a few drops of the sample into the Trak system, which spins around and "uses centrifugal force to isolate and quantify sperm cells using specially designed disposable cartridges," according to Sandstone Diagnostics, the company that created the product. (See it in action in the video below.)
And (of course) there's an app for this. Available free on Google Play, the Apple App Store, and Amazon, the Trak mobile app is where men can enter, track, and compare their results (which are available about 10 minutes after the test is completed) to population statistics.
The system will sell for $159.99. To date, there appears to be one similar sperm-counting product on the market — SpermCheck Fertility — but the testing process is very different. Sold online and in many pharmacies, a SpermCheck test costs between $35 and $40.
The main benefit of these kits is clear: Men can complete the test in the privacy of their own homes, which is important, says Michael Eisenberg, MD, director of male reproductive health and surgery at Stanford University Medical Center and advisor to Sandstone Diagnostics.
"It's hard to get men, in general, to go to the doctor, and certainly reproductive-aged men in their 20s, 30s, 40s, unless they're in pain or bleeding," Dr. Eisenberg says. "This is something most people don't want to talk about."
He adds that the app will educate men about certain lifestyle factors that may be affecting their sperm, such as diet and medications: "You can put in a little about yourself and it can tell you if there's perhaps things you're doing that can be improved upon."
If a man receives a "low" result, Eisenberg suggests the user wait a few days and then take the test again. "Obviously, there can be some anxiety involved," he says. But if the results are consistently low, he recommends seeking medical attention from a fertility expert.
"I think more information is always helpful and moving the curve a little bit instead of couples spinning their wheels for two or three years," Eisenberg says. "There may be something that's easy to be fixed, and [fixing it] sooner will be to the benefit of everybody."
Should Your Man Take the Spin?
"I know the people who make this — I think they're wonderful and they have done a lot for male infertility," says Philip Werthman, MD, director of the Center for Male Reproductive Medicine and Vasectomy Reversal in Los Angeles. "But in general, I'm not a fan of these at-home, do-it-yourself-type things."
While he hasn't worked with or tested this product, he questions its overall validity. The first potential issue he foresees is when a consumer receives a false negative result, "meaning the test says everything is okay, but everything isn't okay," Dr. Werthman explains. "And what that's going to do is mislead people into thinking they don't have a problem when they do."
Then there are some vital factors the test cannot interpret, such as the motility, quality, and shape of the sperm. "It doesn't tell you whether those sperm work, it doesn't tell you whether you have an infection, it doesn't tell you if the amount of fluid is normal or not normal — these are all important pieces of information."
He also points to the suggested retail price, which he says is roughly the same cost as a proper semen analysis conducted at a doctor's office. "So you're talking about medical-grade pricing without medical-grade data evaluation," Werthman says.
Finally, a semen analysis is not the same as a fertility test. "A normal semen analysis doesn't mean that you're fertile, and an abnormal semen analysis does not mean you are infertile," he says. "The most important aspects of trying to figure out a man's fertility is taking a [medical] history and having a physical exam — that's number one and number two, in order of importance. The semen analysis comes down the line at number three."
Werthman's bottom line? If you or your guy are worried about his sperm, consult a urologist who specializes in male infertility. "I'm a big subscriber to what I call 'The Kentucky Fried Chicken Principle of Medicine' — you do one thing and you do it right," Werthman says. "[Primary care physicians] deal with male infertility about zero percent of the time. If you want an expert opinion, you go to an expert."