The male reproductive system is a combination of external and internal organs, with the purpose of producing, maintaining, and transporting sperm for reproduction. The sperm is produced in the testicles, then transported through the epididymis, ductus deferens, ejaculatory duct, urethra, and then is ejaculated with the goal being to fertilize an egg.
The testes hang outside the body in a pouch-like sac called the scrotum, which is located below the penis. The testicles produce both sperm and testosterone, which is the male sex hormone necessary for the reproduction process.
Normal looking testicles form in the lower abdomen, developing until they drop or “descend” into the scrotum, usually happening during pregnancy at 32 to 36 weeks. Unfortunately, this does not always occur, and for 30 percent of premature, and three percent of full term babies have testicles that have not descended yet. This condition is aptly called undescended testicles.
What are Undescended testicles?
Undescended testicles, otherwise known as cryptorchidism, occurs when the testicles fail to drop into the scrotum. This issue is found in about 3 or 4 out of 100 newborns (and up to 21 out of 100 premature newborns). Luckily, about half of these testicles will drop on their own during the first 3 months of life. However, if they don’t properly descend, then treatment will be required. A urologist can tell if the testes have dropped or if they are undescended with a physical exam.
The testicles need to be 2 to 3 degrees cooler than normal body temperature to make sperm. The scrotum is many degrees cooler than body temperature, making it the ideal place for the testicles. Testicles that don’t drop into the scrotum won’t work normally. The longer the testicles are too warm, the lower chances are that the sperm in that testicle will mature normally. Undescended testicles also increase the risk for infertility and testicular cancer.
There is usually only one sign that a boy has an undescended testicle. The scrotum appears underdeveloped or smaller on the affected side. In rare cases, the undescended testicle can become twisted (testicular torsion), causing severe groin pain. If this happens, seek medical attention immediately.
Treatment for Undescended Testicles
In most cases, undescended testicles can be corrected with a surgical procedure called orchiopexy, in which the surgeon brings the testicle down into the scrotum through the abdominal opening and then it is stitched into place. Hormone injections may be tried prior to surgery. The hormones that are used stimulate the testicles to produce higher amounts of testosterone.