A medical professional examining an IVF.

IVF and ICSI, what’s the difference?

In the world of fertility treatments, there are a lot of new words and acronyms that you may feel pressured to keep track of. But as the list grows longer, the names of treatments may start to blend together. IVF and ICSI are just two of these blendable terms.

The differences between an IVF and an ICSI

Articles and websites are known to use the two names (IVF and ICSI) interchangeably, without explanation, or definition. How are people supposed to know what these treatments are and how they’re different? Wait, are they different? Let’s start from the beginning.

In Vitro Fertilization (IVF)

You may already know a little about IVF because it’s probably the most popular form of assisted reproductive technology (ART) out there. It’s also the most expensive. One IVF cycle can cost anywhere from $8,000 to $30,000 depending on factors like age, health, or if you plan on using donor sperm or eggs. However, if IVF turns out to be the right choice for you, it may very well be worth the hefty price tag.

Many people who seek out IVF treatment do so because they have issues with fertility. These could include endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), problems with sperm function, and unexplained infertility. For people over 35, IVF may also offer a better chance of conceiving than traditional intercourse, ICI, or IUI. It’s always a good idea to speak to your healthcare provider when you are thinking about moving forward with any ART or other fertility treatments.

How IVF works

The IVF process can take up to two weeks, and there are several different ways to prepare the body for treatment based on individual health. These preparations include taking hormone-encouraging drugs to boost ovulation and improve chances of producing a high number of mature eggs. There are also medications to help prepare the uterine lining for fertilized embryos. Specialists work closely with patients to help develop a game plan.

When a healthcare provider gives the green light, mature eggs will be carefully retrieved from the ovaries. These eggs (or donor eggs) are taken to a lab where they will then be put in a petri dish with fresh sperm (collected shortly before the procedure), or sperm that has been thawed and prepared beforehand. These close living quarters will allow sperm to mingle with eggs in a way that is isn’t really possible during traditional intercourse. Aside from the setting of the petri dish, the fertilization process is much the same as during intercourse. In the end, one sperm should match up with one egg. Then it’s a bit of a waiting game. If the procedure is successful, after a period of two to six days, the fertilized embryo or embryos will finally be transferred to the uterus, where, hopefully, implantation will be successful and result in pregnancy! With IVF and ICSI, it’s sometimes possible to find out if it worked by taking a pregnancy test as soon as two weeks after implantation.

Intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI)

This treatment is also used when people are having trouble getting pregnant, or by people using donor eggs or sperm. The name “intracytoplasmic sperm injection” makes ICSI sound like a very complicated treatment, but when you break it down, the concept is pretty straightforward. In truth, the term is just a really formal way of saying that during the ICSI process, sperm will be directly injected into an egg to fertilize it. But, what exactly does that mean, and how is it possible?

How ICSI works

ICSI is a form of IVF treatment, often referred to as “IVF with ICSI,” so both processes take place in a IVF lab. As for preparation, traditional IVF and ICSI are very similar, if not identical in some cases. The real difference between the two happens after the sperm and eggs have already been taken to the lab. Unlike traditional IVF, ICSI samples are not mixed together in a petri dish and left to match up on their own. Through the ICSI process, you are able to make the connection for them. A single egg is delicately held in a specialized pipette, while a very small and hollow needle carefully selects a single sperm and immobilizes it by picking it up. Once both parties are secured, the needle is slowly brought through the shell of the egg (zona) before reaching its goal at the center of the egg (cytoplasm). The needle then places the sperm within the cytoplasm. After injecting the sperm, the process is complete, and the needle is removed. Eggs are checked after a day or so to see if the process of “normal fertilization” has begun. Just like traditional IVF, the successfully fertilized eggs are then implanted in the uterine lining once they are mature enough.

Other things to consider

In the end, there really isn’t a “qualifying factor” that can say for sure whether you should use traditional IVF or ICSI treatment (though ICSI may be more effective in cases of severely low sperm count and unexplained male infertility). The process of egg retrieval and insertion of embryos into the uterus are the same between both options. Both are mostly painless, and have mild side effects. In fact, because ICSI has become more popular over the last decade with a 70% to 85% fertilization rate, many clinics have begun to use the two procedures interchangeably, and some have even begun using ICSI for every treatment!

We all know that it’s sometimes difficult to get a straight answer from the internet. We’ve covered the basics, but nothing can replace your healthcare provider’s knowledge and advice. Asking them detailed questions may be the first step in beginning your IVF journey!

Read more
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “In Vitro Fertilization (IVF)”. Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic. March 22, 2018. https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/in-vitro-fertilization/about/pac-20384716
  • “Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection- ICSI and IVF. Advanced Fertility Center of Chicago. Advanced Fertility Center of Chicago. 2017. https://www.advancedfertility.com/icsi.htm
  • “Egg Donation Cost at the Advanced Fertility Center of Chicago”. Advanced Fertility Center of Chicago. Advanced Fertility Center of Chicago. 2017. https://www.advancedfertility.com/eggdonationcost.htm

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