Testicular atrophy is a medical term for what basically amounts to shrinking or shriveling testicles. Unusually small testicles aren’t usually included; the term is typically reserved for organs that start out healthy, then begin to wither and shrink without warning. A number of different things can cause this sort of atrophy, though hormonal imbalances and drug use are two of the most common. Old age, injury, and certain diseases may also be to blame. Men with this condition, however caused, are likely to experience a decreased sex drive and possibly also infertility. A lot depends on the extent of the damage as well as what caused it.
Human testicles are made up primarily of two different cell types. Germ cells are responsible for producing sperm, while Leydig cells produce the male sex hormone testosterone. Men in good health typically produce both cell types in roughly equal amounts, and as a result their testes tend to be full, round, and firm. During atrophy, one or both of these cell types tend to die off. This causes a range of internal changes including fluctuation in fluid levels and semen chemistry, but is perhaps most noticeable on the outside: men with this condition tend to have visibly shrunken organs that are soft and loose to the touch.
There are many reasons why a man may experience this sort of atrophy, though in most cases it has to do with outside factors. Hormonal imbalance is one of the most common. Sometimes imbalances happen on their own, but more often they are a consequence or side effect of medicines or other treatments. Exposure to radiation, as is common in cancer treatments, is one possibility; taking pharmaceutical drugs that contain estrogen, testosterone, or other sex hormones is another.
Steroid may also be to blame. When a man takes steroids, which are basically chemical compounds designed to intensify muscle growth and strength, he is putting an outside source of testosterone into his body. This causes the body to think it has enough, which can cause it to produce less sperm or no sperm at all, both of which can lead to atrophy. Quitting steroids can usually reverse the shrinking, but not always. A lot depends on the timing and how much damage has been done.
Diseases and Other Ailments
Certain viral infections, including mumps or the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), are known to cause atrophy, along with a number of sexually transmitted diseases, particularly gonorrhea and syphilis. In most of these cases, the body is triggered by the infection to either shut down reproductive function or else attack the healthy tissues in the sex organs. Sometimes the damage can be undone when the underlying cause is treated, but not always.
A man who has suffered an injury to his groin or who has a disease or condition that impacts that region, like prostate cancer, might also experience shrinking as a side effect. If blood flow is interrupted to the testicles because of surgery or disease, atrophy is also somewhat common. Alcoholics are usually at an increased risk, particularly if their disease has caused either cirrhosis of the liver or kidney failure, as both of these conditions can negatively impact the testes.
Atrophy is sometimes simply a factor of old age. Men who are past their reproductive prime may experience shrinkage as a natural part of the body’s aging process. Medical professionals can often help men in this category enjoy robust sex lives, but regaining full and firm testicles isn’t always possible.
Side Effects and Consequences
Testicular atrophy has the potential to be very serious, but a lot of this depends on what is going on at the cellular level. If a man’s germ cells have been impacted, he may become infertile, and if the Leydig cells are affected, he may experience a loss in his sex drive, which can lead to erectile dysfunction. Patients may also experience a decrease in muscle and bone mass, weight gain, moodiness, and even hot flashes.
Treating this sort of atrophy is usually more about identifying and curing the underlying condition than it is about addressing the shrinkage directly, as in most cases the two go hand in hand. Figuring out what’s going on can often be somewhat challenging, though. Healthcare providers usually start by looking at the patient’s lifestyle and health history, then run a series of tests to rule out more serious conditions.
When to Get Help
Men who notice sudden or dramatic changes in their testes should usually seek medical attention, particularly if things seem to be getting worse. Problems with the sex organs usually indicate that something bigger is going wrong somewhere else, and the sooner it is identified the more likely it is to be cured.