This blog is part of Fertility FAQ, a series where RMA doctors answer your most pressing questions about treatment.
Today’s physician expert is Dr. Thomas Kim, who practices out of RMA Southern California in West Los Angeles.
The History of Egg Freezing
Egg freezing is on the rise, with many women undergoing the procedure to safeguard their fertility as they pursue careers, continue their search for Mr. Right, or simply delay childbearing because the timing is off.
So what exactly is egg freezing, how does it work, and is it expensive? I’ll answer all of those questions.
As one of the first doctors researching and practicing egg freezing in the U.S., I’ve had many years of experience with egg freezing, or oocyte vitrification, and have seen the practice undergo massive transformation since it was first invented in the 1980s.
It became commonplace in 2012 when the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) announced it would no longer be considered an “experimental” technique.
In total, more than 20,000 American women have had their eggs frozen, and the number climbs each year.
What is the best age to freeze your eggs?
Egg freezing is exactly what it sounds like – it is the act of removing your eggs from your ovaries and literally freezing them so that they stay ‘young’ and do not age with you.
Because egg quality and quantity diminishes with age (by the time a woman is 35 years old, her egg reserve starts a more rapid downward slope), freezing your eggs allows them to stay the age they were at the time of freezing.
The Egg Freezing Process
The process of egg freezing is relatively simple.
- Following blood work and a vaginal ultrasound to determine a woman’s ovarian reserve, a doctor will create her treatment plan (her specific medications and doses, as well as a timeline).
- In several weeks, once she is ready to begin treatment, she will take oral medications for several days and then move onto injectable medications, which are hormone shots.
- These shots stimulate or grow, all the eggs she has in her ovaries that cycle. She will take this ovary-stimulating medication for about 10 days until her eggs are ready to be removed.
- About 36 hours before her egg retrieval, she will take one final ‘trigger shot’ to prepare her eggs for release.
- Then, under light anesthesia on the day of her egg retrieval, her doctor will remove the eggs (inside tiny follicles) from her ovaries, a procedure which takes about 15 minutes.
- The patient will rest in the recovery area for about an hour following her procedure and head home afterward. She will often feel recovered the next day and feel back to normal (no bloating) on her next menstrual cycle.
While it is ideal for women to freeze their eggs before they are 35, the rule of thumb is that freezing your eggs today is better than tomorrow.
For example, if you are 37 and want children but do not yet have a partner, it’s best to freeze your eggs now instead of at 38.
When you are ready to use your eggs (either with sperm from your partner or a donor), you return to the clinic, have your eggs thawed and begin the In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) process with fertilization.
How successful is egg freezing?
You may be wondering what the chances are of your eggs resulting in a live birth. The answer is – it depends on your age at the time of freezing and how many eggs you froze.
In general, you’ll want to get your eggs frozen at a clinic that does vitrification (known as ‘flash freezing’) and not slow freezing, because the latter damages eggs.
You’ll also want to go to a clinic that has experience in thawing eggs, which is tricky and can harm eggs if done incorrectly. Recent research published by IVIRMA Global showed that women who froze their eggs at IVIRMA clinics and then returned to use them had an 85% thaw survival rate, which is high.
Following the thaw, the eggs will be paired with sperm to fertilize into an embryo, grown to the blastocyst stage of development, biopsied for chromosomal makeup, frozen again, and then thawed and transferred into a woman’s uterus.
Because each of these steps can result in a fewer number of embryos, a woman should freeze many eggs in the hopes of one live birth. And of course, the earlier she freezes, the better. For example, IVIRMA research found that women younger than 35 who froze 24 eggs had a 94% chance of one live birth, while women 35 or older who froze 20 eggs had a 50% chance of one live birth.
Again, each woman’s ovarian reserve and clinical success rates are unique, but the takeaway here is that egg freezing is more successful when women freeze more eggs, earlier.
How much does freezing your eggs cost?
Onto the last question of cost – egg freezing costs vary depending on where you go.
In the U.S., those costs range between $3,000 and $10,000 plus the cost of medication, which is usually several thousand dollars, and annual freezing fees, which are about $1,000.
Often, going to an established clinic that employs some of the most skilled professionals in the field, conducts their own research, and has a state-of-the-art embryology lab experienced in vitrification and thawing, will mean paying a little more.
But this is not a bad thing – the results will likely save you time and money in the future.
In summary, egg freezing is a highly personal choice, but one most women never regret. It does, after all, buy you a priceless gift – time.