Testicles are male sex organs that are responsible for producing sperm and hormones. Typically, they form in a male’s abdomen and descend into his scrotum during fetal development. If one or both of your child’s testicles remain in his abdomen, it’s known as an undescended testicle.
This common condition typically resolves on its own within the first few months of life. However, surgery may be necessary in some instances.
The medical term for an undescended testicle is “cryptorchidism.”
What Causes an Undescended Testicle?
The exact cause of an undescended testicle isn’t known. However, researchers believe that a combination of certain factors likely plays a role. These include genetics, the mother’s health, and environmental factors, such as exposure to pesticides or secondhand smoke.
Doctors consider premature birth to be a major contributing risk factor for an undescended testicle. Nearly one-third of premature baby boys have the condition, reports the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. An estimated 3 to 5 percent of male babies have it.
Excess fibrous tissue or muscles that won’t stretch in your child’s groin can cause an undescended testicle. A surgeon can correct these issues.
What Are the Effects of an Undescended Testicle?
An undescended testicle can affect a man’s fertility if left untreated. The higher temperature inside his body can affect his testicle’s development and sperm production. Men with two undescended testicles are more likely to experience fertility-related issues than men with only one undescended testicle.
Men with an undescended testicle are more likely to develop an inguinal hernia. This causes their intestine to push out through a weakened area in their abdominal wall. Only surgery can correct this painful condition.
Undescended testicles are also a risk factor for testicular cancer, even when they’re corrected. This is true for both the descended and undescended testicle.
How Is an Undescended Testicle Diagnosed?
Your child’s doctor may be able to palpate or feel his undescended testicle in his abdomen. In other cases, the testicle can’t be felt. In some cases, the testicle isn’t present at all.
An X-ray or ultrasound imaging test may help your child’s doctor diagnose an undescended testicle. Imaging scans, including an MRI with contrast dye, can confirm the presence or absence of his testicle.
Two conditions can mimic an undescended testicle. A retractile testicle is one that moves back and forth between your child’s groin and his scrotum. This condition typically subsides as your child ages. An ascending testicle is one that returns to your child’s groin and can’t be easily guided back.
How Is the Condition Treated?
The outlook for children with an undescended testicle is very good. Your child’s undescended testicle will typically come down on its own by the time he reaches 6 months old. His doctor will probably perform a physical examination at that time. They may recommend testing if your child’s testicle hasn’t descended.
Hormones that stimulate testosterone production may be used to cause your child’s testicle to descend. This involves injecting a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG). According to research published in American Family Physician, this treatment method has about a 20 percent success rate. It’s not as effective as surgery. It can potentially lead to early puberty.
Your child may need surgery if his testicle hasn’t descended by age 1. The surgery is called “orchiopexy.” It’s usually done as an outpatient procedure. Your child’s surgeon will make a small incision in his groin to allow his testicle to descend to an appropriate position. Recovery typically takes about one week.
Extra tissue may keep your child’s testicle from descending. Your child’s surgeon can remove the excess tissue if this is the case. In other cases, your child may need surgery to stretch the ligament that holds his testicle. This helps his testicle descend into a normal position.
In some cases, the testicle is poorly developed or contains abnormal tissue or tissue that isn’t viable. If this is the case, your child’s surgeon will completely remove this testicular tissue.
If your child reaches adulthood without having his condition treated and he then sees a surgeon, the surgeon will probably recommend removing his testicle. At that point, his testicle is unlikely to produce sperm.
- Docimo, S. G., Silver, R. I., & Cromie, W. (2000, November 1). The undescended testicle: Diagnosis and management. American Family Physician, 62(9), 2037-2044
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2013, April 11). Undescended testicle
- Undescended testes (cryptorchidism). (n.d.)
- Undescended testicles: Treatment. (2014, April)