While the terms are easily confused with each other, medically they mean very different things

On Monday, the Bombay High Court made 63-yearold retired teacher Pramila Ghante smile after 18 years. The court quashed a Pune family court’s order that had granted her husband divorce on grounds of her impotency, thereby regularising his second marriage, stressing that the lower court had made an error by equating impotency with infertility.

While impotency is a term that’s usually associated with men, the Hindu Marriage Act has stretched its definition to include sexual dysfunction (we know it colloquially as frigidity) in women. What’s important is that neither impotency, nor frigidity mean you can’t have children.

You’d be excused for looking confused. Even the court seems to be. One of India’s top fertility specialists Dr Firuza Parikh, and Mirror’s outrageously popular sex therapy columnist Dr Mahinder Watsa help set the record straight.

Impotency
What it means: It’s known as erectile problem, and manifests as an inability to achieve or sustain an erection long or strong enough for penetration. It also covers the inability to ejaculate. In women, sexual dysfunction is characterised by low libido (low or no desire to have sex). It could also mean that the woman cannot stay aroused all through intercourse; or is unable to arouse herself, despite wanting to have sex. If you cannot reach an orgasm, or you find intercourse painful, that too can be classified as sexual dysfunction. This lot of men and women can still have a baby through assisted reproductive procedures or what’s now known as In Vitrio Fertilisation (IVF), where the egg is fertilised by the sperm outside the body, and then transferred into the woman’s uterus.

How it happens: In men, it’s psychological triggers like stress, anxiety and exhaustion that lead to erectile dysfunction. Diabetes, excess intake of alcohol and the use of anti-depressants for long are add-ons. In women, the causes could be hormonal — lower oestrogen levels change genital tissues and affect sexual responsiveness. This tends to happen after pregnancy, during breast-feeding and menopause. During menopause, the vaginal lining becomes thinner, drier and less elastic, making intercourse painful, and arousal tough to achieve.

For Indian women, the impending fear of pain during the first intercourse is a major inhibiting factor.

How to tackle it: Men must change their lifestyle — cut down on alcohol, tobacco and nicotine. Then address stress and anxiety, and hone interpersonal relationship skills. In women, hormones are the first in line for interrogation. Counselling is often advised to deal with fear of penetration and grim ideas associations with the sexual act.

Infertility
What it means: It’s the inability to have children despite trying for an extended period of time. For a woman under 32, this period can be up to two years; for someone older, it would be a year.

How it happens: In women, there could be problems with ovulation — too little or too many eggs are produced. There could be mechanical problems with the uterus such as fibroids, an enlargement or an abnormally shaped uterus. Infections like tuberculosis could also affect the fallopian tubes.

Among men, problems with sperm count (concentration of sperm in a man’s ejaculate), motility (ability of sperm to move towards an egg) and morphology (the size and shape of sperm) can inhibit conception. And this may be genetic. Performance anxiety and lack of libido bring down sperm motility, as would a block in the sperm passage. Smoking and higher than desired temperature around the sperm sac can also lower sperm count.

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