Last Updated on June 7, 2019
If you’re never undergone an IVF treatment before, it’s okay to ask. Is IVF painful and what are the steps involved that might make it painful?
When the movies and televisions shows portray IVF, they usually involve a woman bracing for pain as her husband sticks a needle in her backside. There’s the small wince of pain, and then that’s usually the extent of it. So when it comes to IVF, most of the time, people are generally only aware of the hormone treatments leading up to it, and nothing more.
First things first: take a moment to understand how IVF works and what’s involved every step of the way.
How does IVF Work?
In vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments consist of cycles. Some say they last two weeks, but that’s just part of the cycle. Technically, treatment begins with suppression of the menstrual cycle so that fertility specialists can better control timing and outcomes.
Rather than covering the entire IVF process, let’s look at the parts of the IVF treatment cycle that might give some people anxiety if it’s their first time going through it.
To suppress the menstrual cycle, doctors prescribe Lupron or similar medication. Typically, women and/or their significant others will inject the medication into a fatty area of the body – such as the thigh, or the abdomen. This medication essentially tells the body not to ovulate so that the fertility clinic can retrieve eggs when the time comes.
Typically, women undergoing IVF treatment take Lupron for 14 days.
After the woman gets her period, doctors will usually prescribe Clomid®, but if it’s not successful, they’ll prescribe another injectable medication. This medication stimulates the follicles in the ovaries and encourages them to make as many health eggs as possible.
At a carefully scheduled time, a fertility specialist retrieves eggs from the ovaries using special tools. The specialists use a hollow needle that’s inserted into the uterus extremely carefully, since the lining of the uterus must be healthy and intact. The specialist extracts the eggs one at a time. For what it’s worth, this part of the process takes a very small amount of time.
After the eggs and sperm have met and, together, created fertilized embryos, an embryologist or fertility specialist transfers the embryos to the uterus. Similarly to the egg retrieval, the process involves going into the uterus. However, specialists must take caution during this process, placing the embryos in exactly the right places, and causing as little disruption to the uterine lining as possible. Typically, they will transfer only one embryo, though sometimes, in agreement with the parents-to-be, a fertility specialist will transfer more than one.
Some women misunderstand IVF treatment and consider it surgery. It’s not. Think of IVF very much like a pap smear or vaginal examination. The fertility specialists’ tools are hollow needles and tubes, not knives or scalpels. Also, specialists perform IVF procedures in a doctor’s office or clinic, not in a hospital. IVF treatments do not involve surgery or general anesthesia. And in most cases, the procedures are quite short – usually under 30 minutes. Your time in the office may be longer than that but the actual procedures don’t take very much time.
Is IVF painful?
What causes pain? Now you have an understanding of the steps in the process that involve some sort of injection or insertion, you can start to think about what might cause you pain, specifically. Everyone is different.
Truth be told, it’s likely that the most painful part of the whole IVF cycle will be injecting yourself with medication. If you’re apprehensive about it, you might feel even more pain than you would otherwise. See below in the Managing Pain with Injectables section if you’re squeamish about needles.
Needles cause some people pain, but not all. Likewise, egg retrieval, which involves insertion of a small hollow needle into the uterus and ovaries, might cause a little pain. You may feel a pinch – that’s probably how your fertility doctor will describe it. Most of the time, your clinic won’t give you pain medications for this.
You might feel mild cramping during egg retrieval or afterward. Your uterus will likely feel enlarged, and you’ll be bloated. Bloating can cause mild pain, too.
Similarly, after your embryo transfer, you may feel cramping, bloating, and possibly the mild pain associated with implantation. The cramping should not be as painful as menstrual cramps, but everyone’s pain tolerance is different, so there’s no guarantee you won’t notice anything. Bloating or a small stomach ache would not be unheard of, either.
Even though the fertility doctors keep the procedures as minimally invasive as possible, your body may not see it that way. Needles and tubes will be injected and inserted into your body multiple times. Some women don’t experience any pain at all. Some do, though. So the answer to is IVF painful becomes about how your body responds to minor invasions, and if you can put the small discomforts in the back of your mind.
Managing Pain with Injectables
Injectable medication scares some people. Here’s some good news: There’s so much information about how to make subcutaneous (aka, “under the skin”) injectable medication easier to manage. If you’re sensitive to needles and feel apprehensive, try these tips to manage the pain.
Bring medication to room temperature
Healthcentral.com recommends letting refrigerated injectable medication get to room temperature before injecting it. Doing this reduces pain. The feeling of cold medication in your muscles may be what signals pain, when it’s really just uncomfortable. Holding the syringe in your hand (or under your armpit) can warm it up.
Warm up your skin
Another great tip from HealthCentral is to avoid injecting yourself when you’re cold. Stay warm! They suggest showering and injecting after a hot shower. But you could also just wear hoodies and sweatpants, sit in front of the TV with a blanket for awhile, and then your skin will be warm enough.
Don’t inject the same place over and over
IVF will be painful if you’re injecting the exact same place all the time. Give your body a rest. Choose different injection sites, following your fertility doctor’s guidance.
Lupron should be injected into fatty tissue, which is why your specialist says to inject it into the abdomen. Specifically, inject it into the abdomen within 2 inches on either side of your belly button. You can also inject your upper, outer thigh if the skin is loose enough there.
Other injectables will likely have the same instructions, but just pay carefully attention to what your doctors tell you and how they tell you to inject them.
Egg Retrieval Pain Management
Commonly, people say that egg retrieval doesn’t hurt, and it usually doesn’t. Still, every body responds to intrusions a little differently.
If anything, you may have some discomfort during egg retrieval. Depending on a woman’s anxiety level, sometimes a fertility doctor prescribes a sedative for the egg retrieval process. This process has to be done carefully, and a sedative may reduce the risk of too much discomfort that the procedure gets interrupted.
Relax before egg retrieval (and later, before embryo transfer, too). Stress and anxiety may create tension in the body and make it difficult to relax during the procedure. The procedure itself is short; so throughout the brief period of time, try to focus on something soothing and not think about what is happening.
Is IVF painful because of egg retrieval or embryo transfer? Usually not. The key is to not create an intense and stressful situation that may actually contribute to more pain than otherwise.
Cramping could mean any number of things, but mostly, think of cramping as your body’s response to being poked and prodded. Think about it. Your uterus is a cavity surrounded by muscles. When the specialists disturb the muscles, they respond.
You should consider mild cramping a very normal thing in some women. You may or may not notice any discomfort due to cramping, but it’s worth mentioning here since this is another potential source of IVF pain.
Some women experience cramping after egg retrieval, embryo transfer, and implantation. Not all women do, though. Whether you notice the cramping or not really depends on your body and if you’re sensitive in that way.
So, is IVF painful? Yes for some women, no for others. The most likely sources of pain will be the injectable medications and the side effects of the egg retrieval and embryo transfer procedures. The procedures themselves are not typically painful. After the procedures, however, you may notice some discomfort. It’s manageable, though.
A high quality fertility clinic adequately prepares its patients expectations about IVF, including pain. The best thing women can do is remain in close contact with their chosen clinics. Overall, IVF treatment causes anxiety but not pain. It involves no surgery or need for anesthesia or pain medications. Primarily, you’ll simply be asked to remain as calm and relaxed as you possibly can so that the process will go smoothly.