The Worst Parts of IVF and How Bad They Actually Are


Girl sitting by herself hunched in pain

In an IVF treatment cycle, your ovaries will be stimulated into producing more eggs which will be extracted, fertilized and returned to your uterus. It’s therefore only natural to wonder what the worst parts of IVF will be.

The three worst parts of IVF are:

  1. The possibility of becoming hyper stimulated
  2. The recovery from the egg extraction procedure
  3. The stress and disappointment of a treatment cycle failure

In my experience, while these are the worst parts of IVF, they’re not that bad, as a more detailed look at them will show. In the same vein, a look at the unpleasant but not quite worst parts of IVF, will show that they’re quite manageable too. There are also parts of IVF that are neither good or bad and surprisingly there are parts that are actually good!

The Three Worst Parts of IVF

Let’s look at the three worst parts of IVF in more detail and you’ll see how they’re not that bad after all.

The Possibility of Becoming Hyper Stimulated

The first part of an IVF treatment cycle is stimulating the ovaries into producing and growing more follicles so that there will be more eggs. This already leads to the feeling of being bloated that approximately 1 in 3 women have, which is only natural, because your ovaries are. In the majority of cases this will be mild bloating which is perfectly normal and nothing to worry about.

Obviously, all this could lead to more stimulation than necessary and although you’re monitored to help avoid this, Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS) can occur. This is where your ovaries swell too much and leak fluid into the abdomen or belly.

There are three levels of OHSS: Mild, Moderate and Severe. 33% of women doing IVF will experience mild OHSS which is not serious enough to require any more treatment than regular bloating (rest, avoiding excessive physical exertion and drinking plenty of fluids) and usually resolves itself by the time of your next period.

However, moderate and severe OHSS is much more of a problem because if left untreated, can lead to worse complications such as:

  • Significant abdominal pain
  • Enlarged abdomen
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Reduced urination
  • Constipation
  • Weight gain due to more fluid
  • Shortness of breath
  • Blood clots leading to damage of organs
  • damage to your ovaries
  • In extremely rare cases – death

Fortunately, only 1% of women doing IVF become severely over-hyper- stimulated and it’s treated to start off with in the same way as with bloating and mild OHSS (just with extra monitoring to see if anything gets worse) because it may resolve itself. If that doesn’t happen, you’ll need to be hospitalized so that the fluid that accumulates in the abdomen can be drained.

Either way, it’s important to be aware of OHSS and all its symptoms and to contact your doctor if you think you have it, so that it can be promptly and properly treated.

A person lying in a hospital bed holding their stomach

The Recovery From the Egg Extraction Procedure

Since in all likelihood you won’t become over-hyper-stimulated, the worst physical pain you’ll endure during IVF treatment will be after the egg retrieval procedure. The worst pain would have been the egg retrieval procedure itself but you’re under anesthetic for that.

The reason for the pain is because a needle has been inserted through the back wall of your vagina into your ovaries and the eggs sucked out into the needle.

It’s therefore normal to experience some soreness or a dull ache around your pelvic area, mild cramping, discomfort and / or tenderness where the needle was inserted. This will ordinarily subside within a couple of days by itself and until it does, you can alleviate the discomfort by resting, drinking plenty of fluids and avoiding strenuous activity.

It’s not surprising that the worst IVF pain is not that bad and its recovery is pretty quick, when you consider that the egg retrieval is not a complicated process as mentioned above, only takes about 30 – 45 minutes and only requires you to stay in the clinic for up to a few hours afterwards.

The Stress and Disappointment of a Treatment Cycle Failure

An IVF treatment cycle is emotionally stressful in many ways. It’s very easy to be overwhelmed by all the various things you have to do and anxious about what’s being done to your body.

But above all that there’s the stress and disappointment of failure. And having done so many treatment cycles myself, with all but one failing I have delineated three levels of this particular stress.

The first is the low-level version which you carry with you the whole time you’re actively doing treatment. It’s there because you know that there’s a likelihood of failure (depending on your age, attempt number and overall health, you could have a 30-60% chance of failure) but you’re distracted from this by the previously mentioned stresses of being overwhelmed by all the various things you have to do and anxious about what’s being done to your body.

The second level of this stress is the two-week wait. This starts when the embryos are transferred to your uterus, after which there’s not much more medical intervention and you’re left hoping that the embryos implant in your uterus. Of course, while this can occur anytime during the first 5 days, you have to wait for 14 days before you can do a blood test to find out. AAAaaaargh!

Obviously, the worst level is when you find out that a treatment cycle has failed. It’s upsetting because well … you wanted a child and if you’re doing IVF have wanted one for a long time already and while you still may become pregnant in the future, it’s pushed off further. This is all compounded by the fact that you’ve spent a lot of time, effort, money, undergone all these bodily changes and it’s all been for nothing.

This is when a support network can be helpful. Even if it’s just your partner. I think now would be the perfect time to let you all know that my partner has been really fantastic in his support. Totally amazing, I couldn’t have asked for better … and I’ve retaken control of the keyboard.

If you do have a failed treatment, then take some time for yourself to recover both physically and emotionally. You will, I promise.

A woman relaxing in front of a scenic mountain view

The Unpleasant Yet Not Quite Worst Parts of IVF

While some of the other parts of IVF are not as bad as the worst parts, they can be somewhat unpleasant too. But don’t worry, they are also quite manageable.

The Injections

As part of the IVF treatment cycle, you will be having lots of injections. One injection a day for 10 – 14 days and then possibly two per day for 3 – 4 days closer to the egg retrieval. They’re all done in your lower abdomen which will leave the outside of your stomach bruised and sore.

They’re also mostly self-administered. Yes, that’s right. You’ll be injecting yourself. This can be scary at first and take a lot of time but if I, who was super-scared of needles could get used to it by the end of the first cycle treatment, I expect you to get used it after the first couple of injections.

It helps to use ice before and after the injection (with before meaning before the alcohol swab) as this numbs the area and helps reduce the risk of inflammation. You should also alternate between the left and right sides, if you can remember which one you did last time.

The Bloating

As mentioned, while becoming hyper-stimulated is unlikely, feeling bloated is quite likely. In the majority of cases, it will be mild which is perfectly normal and nothing to worry about, but you will feel a little uncomfortable.

For example, I found that bending over to shave my legs squished my already bloated ovaries, making this part of my skin care routine even more uncomfortable than it already was. Sorry for the TMI, but loss of embarrassment is also a side effect of IVF treatment.

There’s nothing you can do to make the bloating go away or speed up the process of your body getting back to normal. That will occur naturally, and your period helps by releasing all the hormones that caused the bloat in the first place. If you had just moderate bloating, it’s usually entirely gone by the time you stop bleeding on your next period.

To help ease the bloating, drink plenty of fluids as that will flush the liquid you’re retaining, eat nourishing high-protein food because foods that are high in carbohydrates and sugar can make the bloating worse and if you experience a lot of pain take pain killers but not anti-inflammatory drugs as that could interfere with your medication.

Also, get plenty of rest and avoid strenuous exercise, otherwise you could make the bloating worse.

For more information on IVF bloating and how to cope with it see here.

The Mood Swings

The injections that stimulated your ovaries also caused a large change in hormone levels which as we women know, can also lead to mood swings.

It’s just like your period, only worse. Much much worse.

Or even worse than that.

Of course, this is different for all women. My husband told me I wasn’t that bad, although his eyes said something different.

The Nausea

This is another side effect of the hormones you’re taking. It’s not debilitating but it’s there making you feel slightly queasy some of the time.

The Breast Tenderness

Some women can experience occasional breast tenderness even to the point of pain. For me I experienced a slight stinging sensation several times per week for up to a few minutes each time.

The Hot Flashes

These are sudden spikes in temperature in the upper part of your body. It can occur anywhere from very occasionally such as once in two weeks to even a few times a day.

Resting, a healthy diet and exercise is the best way to handle all the side effects of the hormones. That includes the mood swings, the nausea, the breast tenderness, and the hot flashes.

For breast tenderness it may also help to wear comfy, loose-fitting clothing and underwear, and to avoid any strenuous activity that results in contact with your chest.

The Tiredness

From when you start taking the medications it’s very normal to feel quite tired and that remains so throughout the process.

This is partly caused by the medications you’re taking but also because dealing with multiple doctor appointments, regular checkups, mounds of incomprehensible and seemingly unnecessary paperwork, taking what seems like every medication under the sun, regularly injecting yourself, frequent blood tests and ultrasounds, the IVF procedures and possibly some non-IVF procedures, is bound to make you a fraction more tired than usual.

/sarcasm

A woman asleep at her desk

The Emotional Stress

Doing an IVF treatment cycle can be emotionally stressful and by that I don’t just mean the mood swings that are caused by the hormones you’re taking, or the stress of failure already mentioned but just the regular emotional stress of doing something this significant.

Keeping track of everything you have to do can be overwhelming especially during your first treatment cycle. You might be suddenly called in to have a blood test tomorrow and there goes your delicately balanced day of getting your kid ready and taking him to school while still leaving yourself enough time to be able to pick up something from the store and get to work for 9.00.

You may also feel a level of nervousness and anxiety at what you’re doing to your body. Stimulating your ovaries so that lots of eggs can be extracted, fertilized in a lab and then returned to your uterus sounds simple enough on paper but in reality … no it sounds ridiculous on paper … who’s idea was this! No wonder you’re stressed.

There are things you can do to alleviate some of the tiredness and stress.

Plan when to do your IVF cycle. If there’s something important happening in your life soon, then postpone treatment until it’s over. Check out any work options that may be available. You may not want to talk to your boss about what you’re doing, but you may find your company has a policy for women doing IVF and that may be of some help.

Arrange for extra housekeeping or childcare assistance and if you feel comfortable doing so and they’re not going to make matters worse, tell select family and friends and ask them for help, both the practical – can you so some shopping for me, and emotional – can we talk about why I’m putting myself through this!

The Part of IVF That’s Not Unpleasant

The one part of IVF that’s not unpleasant is the embryo transfer procedure.

I mean, you’ll be wearing a flimsy hospital gown so that the doctor can get to where he or she needs to with ease, you’ll be lying on a bed with your legs spread wide, a speculum will be inserted into your vagina which may cause some discomfort and in rare cases mild cramping, a catheter with your embryos will be inserted into your uterus, while guided by an ultrasound technician pressing down on your belly and the required full bladder with the ultrasound wand, but apart from all that it’s not unpleasant at all.

One of the reasons for this, is, because after going through all the unpleasant parts of IVF, you’re pleasantly surprised by how little this part hurts.

It’s also because you’re awake, your partner is there with you and it’s amazing to watch the process take place. You’ll see a tiny catheter which holds even tinier embryo(s) and you’ll be able to watch on the ultrasound monitor as the catheter enters your uterus and the embryos are deposited.

That’s something you don’t see when trying to conceive naturally!

The Good Parts of IVF

Believe it or not there are actually some good parts to IVF.

It Can Make a Marriage Stronger

That’s something that can happen when two people go through some sort of challenge together. You can become a good team, bring out each other’s strengths and best parts and learn – hopefully good – things about each other that you otherwise never would have.

I mean obviously I’m doing all the work, and being experimented on … I mean having all the proper medical procedures and all the side effects, in the hope that I become pregnant and have another nine months of even worse side effects that eventually lead to the trauma that is birth and eighteen years of child-rearing which and let’s face it will be mostly left up to me.

He will be involved too. Watching what I’m going through, helping out occasionally and being empathetic is something I suppose and then there’s also the ejaculating into a container, but yes, both doing this together and all that.

Obviously, IVF can ruin a marriage too.

It Makes You Stronger as a Person

As they say, anything that doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. You will find yourself doing things that you never thought you would be. By this I mean things like administering injections yourself, monitoring mounds of pill-taking, having repeated blood tests and ultrasounds and giving almost complete strangers access to your vagina.

You’ll certainly find it much easier in the future to talk about personal reproductive matters in public.

It’s made me become more assertive and confident, a far cry from the timid and shy person I used to be, who would never have reminded the Doctor that we needed to do a blood test to rule out pregnancy before starting a new treatment cycle.

You Can Become Pregnant

Obviously, the best part of IVF is getting pregnant. It is after all the point of all that time, effort, money, paperwork, tests, procedures, discomfort, mood swings, bodily changes, strained relationships and general upheaval to your day-to-day life, and now you can return to normal.

Except for now having to deal with pretty much all of the above, just for a completely different reason.

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