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While research has indicated a link between exposure to electromagnetic radiation and sperm quality, there is yet another thing which doctors want you to pay attention to – what goes on in your mind.

Sperm and the smartphone Does a tech-heavy lifestyle cause infertility or impotence
Wednesday, March 06, 2019 - 08:07


For young men, it is not uncommon to be told that they must be careful about their phone usage because exposure to radiation could lead to infertility. From worried parents who pass on medical wisdom from WhatsApp forwards, to alarmist blogs calling for an end to tech-dependence, the belief that technology is affecting man’s fertility or sexual function is not contested very much.

The belief isn’t unfounded. Doctors across the country are reporting an increase in the number of cases of infertility among men, and doctors believe that a tech-heavy lifestyle is a factor. “It is true that there is less stigma these days, so more men come forward to report their fertility issues. But we have seen in many cases that the men are heavy users of phones and laptops,” says Dr Thirumalai Ganesan, Consultant Urologist at Apollo Hospitals in Chennai, who also specialises in andrology cases.

“Of late, more young couples are coming in, and many men are from the IT industry. We think that their early and regular use of phones and laptops could be a factor in the reducing quality of their sperm,” Dr Ganesan explains.

Is your sperm on the move?

For almost a decade now, studies have been conducted to find out if the use of mobile phones, laptops, or even microwaves can cause infertility in men. In several studies, it was found that sperm motility can be negatively impacted by mobile phone usage or electromagnetic radiation. Sperm ‘motility’ refers to the ability of the sperm to move. If sperm motility is poor, then the sperm is not swimming properly, which leads to infertility.

A study in 2008 by a team of mostly Indian doctors at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation found that the use of cell phones decreased semen quality in men by “decreasing the sperm count, motility, viability, and normal morphology. The decrease in sperm parameters was dependent on the duration of daily exposure to cell phones and independent of the initial semen quality.”

In 2014, a systematic review of 10 studies was published in Environmental International on ‘effects of mobile telephones on sperm quality’. The review concluded that there were consistent ‘negative associations’ between mobile phone exposure and sperm motility and viability, even if not to overall concentration of sperms. The authors wrote, “Mobile phone exposure may form part of a cumulative effect of modern-day environmental exposures, that collectively reduce sperm quality and explain current trends in infertility.”

Another study in the Central European Journal of Urology also concluded that a correlation exists between mobile phone radiation exposure and decreased sperm motility. The Middle East Fertility Society Journal had a more focussed study on Jordanian males, which found that mobile phone use impacted sperm concentration and motility. It also found that amount of time spent watching TV, distance from a telecom tower, and time spent sending and receiving texts on the phone, can affect sperm parameters. Further, use of laptops (more specifically, keeping your laptop on your lap, above your scrotum) has also been linked to decreasing fertility in men.

While it is pointed out here that it’s not yet time to panic and start wearing underwear which shields our genitals from phone radiation, Dr Ganesan says that it is proven beyond doubt that there is some impact on male sexual health. “But what can we do? When people come to us, we do tell them to not use phones and laptops too much,” he says.

And it isn’t just about sperm, a potential correlation has been found between mobile phone use and erectile dysfunction.

Looking into the mind

“The stigma attached to erectile dysfunction or impotence is reducing. But men are still embarrassed, and I always tell them they should not be,” says Dr Ganesan. He is quick to add that the problems men face with sexual dysfunction aren’t to do with just the use of phones and laptops, it is deeper and linked to the larger lifestyle and work culture around these gadgets, and how it impacts our mind. “It could also be because of really, really high stress levels and anxiety. It is a dog eat dog world. These guys work very hard, day and night. That affects our overall health. And relationships are also at risk, which can cause problems in the bed.”

Dr. Thirumalai Ganesan, Consultant Urologist, Apollo Hospital 

Dr Ganesan explains that the causes of erectile dysfunction – when men can’t get it up – can be due to four reasons: vascular (blood circulation), neural (to do with the nerves), hormonal, and psychological. It is the last reason we need to pay more attention to, the doctor thinks. “If you are 50 years old, there could be many medical problems. But when a 30-year-old person comes in, I send them to psychosexual counsellors. And there are so many who are diagnosed with psychological issues – somatic disorders, performance pressure.”

So how do you treat men with an erectile dysfunction, when there is no major medical issue? “First step is behavioural treatment,” Dr Ganesan says, in a strict tone. This is where doctors have to be progressive and open to psychological interventions, and not go directly to medication. “Doctors need to understand that there is a psychological aspect,” he says.

Therapy can go a long way in bringing back the confidence in men that they can perform, and could sometimes be all that is required. However, medication can help initially. “Viagra-type drugs are not the real solution, but they can be kickstarters. If you take them for a limited period of time,” and the doctor emphasises that it has to be for a limited period of time, “you will be able to perform better, and that also gets your confidence back, and that can break the cycle.” But he warns, “There are side-effects to the medication, and there needs to be clear communication with the patient, and they have to be comfortable.”

This article has been produced in association with Apollo Hospitals by TNM Marquee.