Today’s blog takes a closer look at a relatively common problem among premature baby boys, namely undescended testicles. If you’re searching for information and facts about this condition, why it occurs, and what can be done to treat it, read on to find out more!
What, Exactly, Are Undescended Testicles?
When a baby boy is conceived, one of the body parts that form while they are in the womb are their two testicles. Undescended testicles, a condition known medically as cryptorchidism, are when one or both testicles don’t move into their proper position in the scrotum. (More on that in a moment.)
Cryptorchidism is relatively common among all baby boys but, among preemies, even more so. The good news is that it’s typically painless.
How Does the Condition Occur?
Undescended testicles happen when the testicles don’t move into their proper position in the scrotum, the pouch or sac that hangs between a man’s legs. The thing is, the testicles are formed in the abdomen initially but, as a baby boy nears birth, they move from the abdomen down into the scrotum.
This happens because the sperm produced by the testicles can’t grow at normal body temperature, which is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of this, the testicles drop into the scrotum, where they stay cooler, and thus the sperm is easier to produce (and more viable) when the boy reaches puberty.
Undescended Testicles are More Common Among Premature Boys
One of the causes of undescended testicles appears to be prematurity. Indeed, the earlier a preemie is born, the higher the chance of the condition. That’s not surprising when you consider that the testicles descend near the end of the nine month period that a baby boy is maturing and growing in his momma’s belly.
Do the Testicles Eventually Descend on their Own?
Yes and no. In about 20% of cases, the testicles will move down into the scrotum, and everything will be copasetic. That leaves 80% of the cases to be fixed with a surgical procedure. By the way, those that do descend will usually happen during a baby boy’s first three to six months of life, which is why doctors won’t rush to perform surgery for the condition.
Can a Boy with Undescended Testicles Still have Children?
Again the answer here is yes and no. In most cases involving one undescended testicle, the answer is yes. That testicle should, in most cases, provide plenty of viable sperm over the years. (Each one produces literally billions of sperm over a man’s average lifespan.)
On the other hand, a boy born with both testicles undescended may have a tougher time producing children of his own. That’s because, as we mentioned above, they need to be in the cooler scrotum in order for viable sperm to be produced. Also, if they remain in the abdomen, the warmer temperatures may affect the development of the testicles themselves, which could further lead to a lack of viable sperm later in their life.
Undescended Testicles Lead to a Slightly Higher Risk of Testicular Cancer
While the risk of testicular cancer from undescended testicles isn’t abnormally high, it is, unfortunately, higher for a boy born with the condition. That fact remains true even if they have surgery to fix the problem.
The good news is that, after surgery, a boy (and eventually the man he becomes) will be able to self-evaluate for testicular cancer. That’s because the testes will be in a position where, frankly, they can be felt for any changes as they go through life.
The Cause of Undescended Testicles is Unknown
Scientists and medical professionals, as of this writing, have no exact data on why cryptorchidism occurs. Yes, it happens more frequently to premature babies, but that alone isn’t seen as the specific causative factor. There are a few theories, however, including:
- When a baby boy is born with some type of abnormal anatomy.
- If, for some reason, the environment they’re exposed to while in the womb influences their development somehow.
- If there is some type of hormonal imbalance while in the womb.
What is Testicle Retractile?
In some, mostly rare, cases, a baby boy’s testicles will appear to have moved into their correct position in the scrotum, but, for reasons unknown, will then retract back up into the abdomen. This can happen repeatedly, a condition known as testicle retractile. Doctors consider this relatively normal and thus typically do not opt to perform surgery to correct it.
How are Undescended Testicles Diagnosed?
When a baby boy is born, they are examined in the first few hours or days of life. A doctor or nurse will feel (palpate) for their testicles in the scrotum during that examination. It’s a simple exam that can tell immediately if the boy’s testicles have or haven’t descended into their proper position.
This exam is essential in more ways than one. If it shows that the testicles have indeed not descended correctly, doctors will know to keep an eye on the situation over the first six months of the boy’s life. If, after that time, they still haven’t descended, surgery will usually be recommended. (Some hospitals and doctors will opt to perform surgery after only three months.)
The reason for this is two-fold; first, to give the boy a better chance of being able to have their own children later in life. Second, to prevent the undescended testicle(s) from becoming a tumor as they get older, which could cause other health problems as well as a lot of pain.
What is an Ascending Testicle?
In some baby boys, the testicles will appear to have dropped successfully into the scrotum. However, later in life, they may disappear as they move back up into the abdomen. This is called ascending testicle, and it’s caused when the testicles don’t affix themselves correctly in the scrotum.
Undescended testicles occur more often in premature baby boys and will need surgery to be corrected in the majority of cases. However, it’s sometimes difficult to determine whether or not surgery is required in the first few weeks and months of their life. That’s why it’s essential you have your precious preemie checked regularly (i.e., once a year) to determine if their testicles do indeed drop. This should continue into and through their formative years. If they don’t, surgery is the recommended course of action.