Women today are choosing to have children later in life than ever before. Egg freezing can enable a woman to delay pregnancy until a later stage.

Medical professionals refer to the procedure as oocyte cryopreservation.

In 1980, the average woman in the United States had her first baby at the age of 22 years. By 2000, that age had risen to almost 25 years, and, in 2014, the average woman waited until 26 years old to have her first child.

In the United States, 2.3 percent of all births are to women aged 40 to 44 years.

Society and patterns in childbirth may be changing. However, the biological realities of fertility remain the same.

Most women enter menopause in their late 40s or early 50s. In the years before menopause, a woman’s fertility declines. Conceiving a child is not as easy in later years as it is for a younger woman.

Women who are considering freezing their eggs should be aware that successful pregnancies are less common with frozen eggs than fresh eggs. However, the use of frozen eggs can offer hope of conceiving in the future.

In this article, we explore the procedure, costs, and benefits of egg freezing.

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Egg freezing can help preserve fertility later on in life.

As a woman grows older, the quality of her eggs tends to decline.

The eggs may contain more chromosomal abnormalities, and women will no longer ovulate after menopause. This means that her ovaries will cease to release eggs.

If a woman wants a child but is not able or ready to conceive at the present time, a dedicated facility can freeze her eggs for use at a later date.

Preparation

Before the egg-freezing process begins, a doctor will take a comprehensive medical history with a focus on fertility, assess the regularity of the menstrual cycle, and perform a range of blood tests to assess hormone levels.

A woman’s ovaries usually release one egg per month. When fewer eggs are available for freezing, the chances of a successful pregnancy are lower.

In order to maximize the number of available eggs, a woman will undergo hormone treatment to stimulate the production of more eggs. This treatment normally requires a woman to inject herself with hormones at home between one and three times a day.

Most women will also take birth control pills for at least a month before receiving the hormone injections. This suppresses the natural cycle and increases the effectiveness of the hormones.

The number and type of hormones vary. Treatment will normally include:

  • around 2 weeks of injections with follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH), which encourage the ovaries to produce more eggs
  • an injection of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) about halfway through the cycle, which prevents ovulation from taking place too early in the cycle
  • an injection of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) to trigger ovulation

A doctor will perform regular blood tests to monitor the effects of hormone treatments. The woman will also have at least one ultrasound to detect ovulation and to assess egg development.

Procedure

The doctor inserts a needle into the ovarian follicles to retrieve the eggs after they ripen.

The doctor will normally use ultrasound to guide the procedure. However, if the eggs are not visible during ultrasound imaging, the doctor may perform abdominal surgery to remove them.

With this more invasive approach, the doctor makes a small incision in the abdomen under sedation and pain medication and inserts a needle to extract the egg.

Once the doctor has retrieved the egg, freezing will need to take place as soon as possible. However, the eggs are full of water, which can become damaging ice crystals if freezing occurs immediately.

To prevent this, the doctor injects a special solution into the eggs before freezing them.

In the future, when the woman is ready to use her eggs, she will undergo in vitro fertilization (IVF).

With IVF, a fertility specialist fertilizes the egg in a lab, using sperm from either the woman’s partner or from a donor.

If the procedure works, the egg and sperm develop into an embryo that undergoes implantation in the woman’s uterus a few days later. Most fertility clinics try to grow several embryos at once to increase the chances of a successful pregnancy.

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Some cancer treatments might reduce or end fertility. Egg freezing can help preserve the ability to have a child beyond these treatments.

Younger women have significantly higher success rates than older women when freezing eggs.

Women who wish to undergo egg freezing should do so as early as possible.

Most clinics work with women who are under 40 years old. Some clinics place restrictions on women who are 40–49 years of age. Few will allow women over the age of 45 years to freeze their eggs.

Frozen eggs do not definitely lead to a live birth. The chance of each frozen egg leading to a live birth is between 2 and 12 percent. A range of factors can affect a person’s chances of becoming pregnant, such as uterine health, age, and overall health.

The following are some reasons that women freeze their eggs:

Career and educational plans: Women who wish to pursue advanced degrees or demanding careers may freeze their eggs when they are young to ensure access to healthy eggs later on.

Some companies, such as Facebook and Apple, even fund egg-freezing for female employees who wish to delay childbirth for professional reasons.

Personal circumstances: Women who want to have a child with a partner but have not yet found one may freeze their eggs for future use. Women in same-sex relationships may also wish to have a baby further down the line.

Cancer: Chemotherapy and other cancer treatments typically interfere with and sometimes end fertility. Reproductive cancers might lead to the removal of a woman’s ovaries.

Egg freezing might help reduce the impact of some cancer treatments on fertility.

Infections, organ failure, and other health concerns: A wide range of health problems can harm egg quality and fertility, such as endometriosis, a condition that causes uterine tissue to grow outside of the womb.

Freezing eggs offers hope to women who are receiving treatment for a serious illness that may reduce fertility.

Freezing eggs can be expensive, and most insurance plans do not cover the procedure.

A single cycle can cost upwards of $10,000. Other costs include storage of the eggs and IVF, which could cost an additional $5,000. Egg storage is also indefinite – a woman may not need the egg for 10–15 years.

This means that ongoing egg storage costs will continue to build up.

Insurance is also unlikely to cover egg freezing for this reason. While the procedure can provide a personal, long-term solution to fertility problems, it is not active treatment and does not have an end date in sight.

Speak to your insurance provider about their policy on egg freezing.

After egg retrieval, some women may experience cramping, bloating, and spotting. Other unwanted side effects include:

The extra hormones can trigger these effects.

In rare cases, egg stimulation can lead to a condition known as ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (HSS). The effects of HSS can include pain, nausea, and significant weight gain of over 10 pounds (lb) in 3–5 days. Very rarely, HSS might trigger blood clots in the legs and shortness of breath.

Long-term complications include a higher risk of ovarian cancer, according to this 2015 study.

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Up to 12 percent of frozen eggs develop into live births.

Data on pregnancies that result from egg freezing varies.

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) estimates that 2–12 percent of frozen eggs develop into a live pregnancy for women under 38 years of age.

This suggests that women may need to undergo multiple IVF cycles to become pregnant following egg freezing.

Factors that impact the success of egg freezing and thawing procedures include:

  • Age on freezing the eggs: Younger women tend to produce more eggs that are less likely to have anomalies.
  • Age at time of egg thawing and IVF: Younger women are more likely to have successful pregnancies.
  • Sperm quality: Healthy sperm is more likely to produce a healthy embryo and a successful pregnancy.
  • The clinic: The success rates of freezing and thawing eggs vary between clinics.
  • The number of eggs: Freezing a larger number of eggs offers more opportunities for successful IVF cycles.

How long will frozen eggs last?

Freezing an egg stops it from aging. A frozen egg that is several years old will typically have a better chance of fertilization than a fresh egg from an older woman.

Most studies on frozen eggs examined eggs that were a few months old. The length of time for which a specialist can freeze eggs remains unclear.

Most researchers suggest freezing eggs in the mid-to-late twenties for use after 30 years of age. Women who are considering IVF in the future should not delay any longer than necessary.

According to the University of Southern California’s fertility clinic, about 75 percent of eggs survive the thawing process.

Embryos are more likely to survive both freezing and thawing than eggs and more likely to result in a successful pregnancy.

Woman with a partner or who intend to use donor sperm should consider freezing embryos rather than just eggs.