Varicocele Treatment & Management

Updated: Nov 23, 2016
  • Author: Wesley M White, MD; Chief Editor: Bradley Fields Schwartz, DO, FACS  more...
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Treatment

Medical Therapy

A varicocele is an anatomic abnormality that can impair sperm production and function. No effective medical treatments for varicoceles have been identified. While some investigators are evaluating the role of antioxidants for the treatment of elevated levels of reactive oxygen species, this treatment approach is still experimental.

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Surgical Therapy

The primary form of treatment for varicoceles is surgery. Because of the potential to cause significant testicular damage, evaluate the varicocele during the physical examination. The presence of a varicocele does not in itself mean surgical correction is necessary.

The ultimate goals of varicocele repair should include occlusion of the offending varicosity with high success, preservation of arterial flow to the testis, and the minimization of patient discomfort and morbidity. Viable options for repair include radiographic obliteration and surgical repair of various approaches. The efficacy of the myriad techniques is nearly equivalent. Therefore, special attention must be paid to the morbidity of the individual procedure and the expertise of the operating surgeon.

Results from a prospective, randomized controlled trial from Saudi Arabia compared subinguinal microsurgical varicocele repair to observation. [16] Inclusion criteria included infertility lasting 1 year or longer, demonstration of a palpable varicocele, and presence of at least one impaired semen parameter (sperm concentration <20 million/mL, progressive motility <50%, or normal morphology <30%). A total of 145 participants had follow-up within 1 year; spontaneous pregnancy was achieved in 13.9% of controls compared with 32.9% of treated men (odds ratio, 3.04). In treated men, the mean of all semen parameters significantly improved in follow-up compared with baseline (p <0.0001). This study provided an evidence-based endorsement of the superiority of varicocelectomy over observation in infertile men with palpable varicoceles and impaired semen quality.

Microsurgical repair of varicocele may improve the patient's erectile and ejaculatory function, along with raising  testosterone levels. In a review by Najari et al of 17 patients with infertility and 13 with symptomatic varicocele associated with hypogonadism, most of whom had bilateral varicoceles and left grade III varicoceles, 15 patients (44%) reported improvement in their erectile function and 18 (53%) reported improvement in ejaculatory function. Serum testosterone levels rose 136.0 ±201.3 ng/dL. [17]

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Preoperative Details

Perform varicocele surgery in an outpatient setting using one of various anesthetics (eg, general, regional, local). A general anesthetic provides maximal patient comfort.

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Intraoperative Details

The three most common surgical approaches used to correct a scrotal varicocele are as follows:

  • Inguinal (groin)
  • Retroperitoneal (abdominal)
  • Infrainguinal/subinguinal (below the groin)

With all three approaches, all abnormal veins are tied permanently to prevent continued abnormal blood flow. Avoidance of the vas deferens and the testicular artery during the surgery is critical. The inguinal approach is depicted below.

Incision for an inguinal approach to varicocele re Incision for an inguinal approach to varicocele repair.

The inguinal and subinguinal approaches are those most commonly used by the vast majority of adult urologists and infertility specialists. The familiar anatomy, low morbidity, and high efficacy make these approaches almost ideal. Inguinal ligation is achieved by incising the inguinal canal down to the external inguinal ring. After cord isolation, the testicular artery is preserved and the veins of the cord are ligated and divided.

The subinguinal approach is performed in a similar fashion, but access is achieved through an incision at or near the pubic tubercle that obviates the opening of the external oblique aponeurosis. The advantages of subinguinal varicocele ligation, especially with use of magnification, include decreased pain and easier access to the spermatic cord, especially among obese men and those with a history of inguinal surgery. However, at this level, a greater number of veins are present, especially periarterial anastomosing veins, which makes subinguinal ligation technically challenging.

The use of the microsurgical technique has advanced the surgical treatment of this disorder by allowing optimal visualization. While the approach to cord isolation is no different, the 6-25X magnification facilitates the identification of small anastomosing veins that might otherwise be missed. Furthermore, the risk of testicular ischemia and testis atrophy due to inadvertent ligation of the testicular artery is greatly reduced with this improved visualization. This risk of arterial ligation can be further reduced by using a mini-Doppler ultrasound probe (Vascular Technology, Inc. [VTI] 20-MHz microvascular Doppler) with the use of a topical vasodilator.

The retroperitoneal approach offers great proximal control of the spermatic vein near its insertion at the renal vein, and this approach may be accomplished laparoscopically. Although this approach to varicocele ablation remains popular among pediatric urologists, it has the following potential drawbacks:

  • A high recurrence rate (nearly 15%), due to inguinal and retroperitoneal collateral veins
  • Failure to ligate fine periarterial veins when the testicular artery is preserved
  • Inability to preserve lymphatics
  • Potential hydrocele formation when the artery and vein are ligated en bloc

Percutaneous embolization represents the least invasive means of varicocele repair. The internal spermatic vein is accessed primarily via cannulation of the femoral vein through a retrograde approach with subsequent balloon and/or coil occlusion of the varicocele. The advantages of percutaneous embolization include preservation of the testicular artery and the relatively noninvasive nature of the technique. However, the percutaneous approach can be fraught with troublesome access to the vein, and postoperative complications such as contrast allergies, arterial injury, thrombophlebitis, and coil migration are uncommon but tangible risks. This approach is often reserved for recurrent varicoceles after open surgical repair.

Shibata et al reported that intraoperative indocyanine green angiography (ICGA), which is regularly used in microsurgical neurosurgery, can facilitate microsurgical subinguinal varicocelectomy by enabling the visualization and identification of the testicular arteries in the spermatic cord. After the exposure of the spermatic cord blood vessels, ICG was injected intravenously under a surgical microscope and the resulting infrared fluorescence allowed surgeons to safely and quickly ligate the spermatic veins. [18]

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Postoperative Details

Patient instructions

See the list below:

  • Varicocele surgery is usually performed in an outpatient setting (ie, day-surgery unit). Patients may return to normal nonstrenuous activities (eg, work) after 2 days.
  • All outer dressings are removed 48 hours after surgery. The small strips of tape (Steri-Strips) are left in place for 7-10 days before removal.
  • Inform patients that bathing or showering is permitted 48 hours after surgery.
  • A normal, well-balanced diet can be resumed when patients return home. Advise patients to start with fluids and gradually return to solid foods.
  • Prescribe pain medication and advise patients to take as directed. After 2 days, patients may take nonprescription acetaminophen (eg, Tylenol) or ibuprofen (eg, Advil, Motrin) to relieve discomfort.
  • Patients can engage in normal, nonstrenuous activity when they feel up to it. If activity causes discomfort, it should be discontinued. Patients can resume more strenuous activities (eg, weightlifting, jogging) after 2 weeks.
  • Advise patients to refrain from intercourse for 1 week.

Common discomforts and symptoms that do not require medical attention

Patients may experience some postoperative discomfort. Complications are rare. Common discomforts or symptoms do not require a doctor's attention and may include the following:

  • Minor bruising and slight discoloration may appear around the groin incisions but are self-limited.
  • The sensation of hardness around and beneath the incision site resolves in approximately 3 weeks.
  • The slight redness and tenderness around the incision from the normal healing process resolves in a few days.
  • A very small amount of thin, clear, pinkish fluid drains from the incision for a few days after the procedure. Advise patients to keep the area clean and dry.
  • A sore throat, headache, nausea, constipation, and general body ache occur because of the surgical procedure and anesthetic. Advise patients that these problems resolve within 24 hours.

Postoperative complications that require prompt medical attention

If wounds become infected (usually 3-5 d after surgery), antibiotics may be necessary. Infected wounds can become warm, swollen, red, and painful, with significant drainage from the incision site, and patients may develop fever.

Hematomas may form. Extreme discoloration around the abdominal incisions results from bleeding underneath the skin, which causes throbbing pain and bulging wounds.

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Follow-up

Check the patient's semen 3-4 months after surgery. Because spermatogenesis requires approximately 72 days, any effects from the varicocele repair on semen analysis results are delayed.

Patient instructions

See the list below:

  • The patient returns to the clinical office for a wound evaluation in approximately 7-10 days.
  • Schedule a follow-up examination for a wound check and varicocele examination for 8 weeks after surgery.
  • Schedule a semen analysis and consultation for 4 months after surgery. At this time, the timing of subsequent appointments can be discussed.

For patient education information, see the Men's Health Center, as well as The Male Anatomy and Testicular Pain.

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Complications

The prevalence of adverse effects following varicocele repair is remarkably low. Hydrocele or increased fluid around the testicles occurs in 2-5% of patients. Successful surgery often increases conception rates in infertile couples. The overall recurrence rate for varicoceles has been reported as high as 10%.

The long-term occurrence of hydroceles and varicocele recurrence was analyzed in a study comparing 67 patients who received lymphatic-sparing laparoscopic varicocelectomy with 30 patients who received a plain laparoscopic varicocelectomy. The risk of hydrocele formation was significantly less in lymphatic-sparing group (4.5% vs. 43.3%). In addition, none of the patients with hydrocele formation in the lymphatic-sparing group required a hydrocelectomy, compared with 31% in the plain laparoscopic group. [19]

The varicocele recurrence rate was higher in the lymphatic-sparing group (6% vs 3.3%) but when the artery was not preserved, the rate in the lymphatic-sparing group fell to 1.3%. The success and complication rates of lymphatic-sparing, non–artery preserving, laparoscopic varicocelectomy were comparable with those of subinguinal microsurgical varicocelectomy. [19]

Injury to the testicular artery has been reported in 0.9% of microsurgical varicocele repairs. This incidence may be higher when optical magnification is not used for varicocele repair. Because the testis typically has additional arterial supplies from the vasal and cremasteric arteries, testicular atrophy is uncommon (5%) after division of the testicular artery. Smaller atrophic testes may be at greater risk for accidental testicular artery injury because of the smaller size of the artery in these cases.

In a patient in whom a varicocele is first identified during a vasectomy reversal, varicocelectomy at the time of the vasectomy reversal is controversial. Delaying the varicocelectomy preserves some venous return in these patients and avoids possible injury to the testicular artery. Consider varicocele repair 6 months later, after new vascular channels form.

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Outcome and Prognosis

Following varicocelectomy, approximately 66-70% of patients have improved bulk semen parameters, and 40-60% of patients have increased conception rates. Because human spermatogenesis takes approximately 72 days, the first improvements in semen analysis results are typically not apparent until 3-4 months after surgery.

While many of the published studies are retrospective, a randomized, prospective, controlled study by Magdar and associates (1995) confirmed that varicocelectomy is an effective treatment for male subfertility. Magdar et al studied male counterparts in couples in 2 subject groups, groups A and B. Group A (20 male subjects with varicoceles) was studied for 1 year, and only 2 (10%) men initiated a pregnancy. Male subjects who could not initiate a pregnancy then underwent varicocele repair; within 2 years, 12 (66%) were successful in initiating a pregnancy. [20]

Meanwhile, 25 male subjects in group B underwent immediate varicocele repair. Within the first year, 15 (60%) initiated a pregnancy. After 3 years, an additional 4 (16%) subjects achieved pregnancy. Semen parameters improved in all subjects who underwent varicocele repair, regardless of pregnancy occurrence. Semen parameters were unchanged among group A subjects during their 1 year of observation. This important study concluded that varicoceles are associated with reduced fertility and impaired testicular function, while repair improves sperm parameters and fertility rates. [20]

In addition, Vasquez-Levin et al (1997) demonstrated that varicocele repair benefits sperm morphology, even when evaluated using so-called strict criteria. [21]

Evers and Collins performed a meta-analysis of 7 randomized controlled trials. Because overall pregnancy rates were 21.7% in operated patients and 19.3% (pNS) in control patients, they concluded that varicocele repair did not improve natural pregnancy rates. [22] The concerns with this meta-analysis are that inclusion criteria regarding severity of impairment in semen parameters were not uniform, the varicocele diagnostic criteria and grading were inconsistent, and female factors were not mentioned in their overall analysis.

The persistent or recurrent varicocele can be repaired microsurgically with significant improvements in sperm concentration, percent motility, and total motile sperm per ejaculate. In addition, as reported by Grober et al, a beneficial effect on serum testosterone levels, testicular volume, and pregnancy rates can be observed. [23]

The optimal approach to varicocele ligation has not been proven in evidence-based studies. However, based on available experience and reports, the authors recommend varicocele ligation be performed through an inguinal or subinguinal approach with the use of an operating microscope and hand-held microvascular Doppler ultrasound probe.

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Future and Controversies

In 1992, researchers introduced a new micromanipulation technique known as intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI). With ICSI, surgeons inject a single spermatozoon into an oocyte to initiate fertilization and, eventually, a pregnancy. With the success of this technique, some researchers question the need for varicocele repair.

Conversely, a cost-analysis study by Schlegel shows the significant cost advantage of varicocele repair over ICSI. [24] In addition, varicocele repair has the potential for improving the male factor, rather than using unknown sperm. ICSI also involves in vitro fertilization (IVF), which carries some risk for the female who donates surgically removed eggs.

Another current topic focuses on the benefit of varicocele repair in men who are azoospermic or severely oligospermic. Although numerous studies indicate that varicocele repair can improve spermatogenesis in up to one third of azoospermic men, the initiation of spontaneous pregnancy is highly unusual in this population. The remaining two thirds eventually require testicular sperm extraction and IVF-ICSI, even after varicocele repair. Couples must therefore be counseled realistically regarding the benefit of varicocelectomy in this setting.

Other concerns focus on the benefit of varicocele repair in infertile men with poor semen quality who have only ultrasound evidence of a varicocele. While opinions differ about the value of repairing subclinical varicoceles in infertile men, most experts do not recommend it.

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