What is artificial insemination (AI)?

Artificial insemination (AI) is a method that introduces sperm into the female genital tract without sexual intercourse taking place. It has been used to impregnate farm animals for many years, as it allows sperm from a prize-winning horse or bull to be used to impregnate many females to boost the strength of farm stock.

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Artificial insemination was first used as a fertility treatment in people during the 1940s. Techniques have been refined since then, but the basic principle remains the same. The male partner’s sperm is obtained by masturbation, prepared, and then inserted directly into the female using a syringe and tube.

Artificial insemination is available as a first option to treat couples who have unexplained infertility and in couples in which the female partner has polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or other problems with ovulation. It can also help couples in which the male partner has a large number of sperm that do not swim too well, or where the man experiences retrograde ejaculation (where the sperm travel backwards into the bladder), or has sperm that are attacked by antibodies in the partner’s genital tract. AI can also help overcome problems in couples who cannot have sex naturally because of injury or disability.

Modern methods of artificial insemination involve washing and preparation of the sperm sample, to obtain the healthiest and faster moving sperm, before introducing it into the woman.

Several methods of artificial insemination are possible:

  • Intracervical insemination (ICI): sperm are introduced through a syringe and short tube directly to the top of the vagina, close to the cervix. This method of artificial insemination is not recommended if the male partner’s sperm is susceptible to antibodies in the female partner’s vaginal secretions.
  • Unstimulated intrauterine insemination (IUI): sperm are introduced directly into the uterus, well above the cervix, using a longer tube. This is timed to coincide with natural ovulation, which is monitored using temperature charts and blood tests.
  • Stimulated intrauterine insemination (IUI): the insemination happens in exactly the same way as in unstimulated IUI but the female partner is given fertility drugs for a few days to stimulate her ovaries to release more than one egg. This increases the chance of pregnancy.

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