Egg freezing, also known as oocyte cryopreservation, is a procedure that allows women to retrieve eggs when they are most healthy and have them for use later in life. The process of freezing eggs involves a series of steps, including ovarian stimulation, egg retrieval, and cryopreservation. One of the most common questions that women have about egg freezing is whether or not it is painful. In this article, we’ll review all your questions about the egg freezing process and pain.
Egg freezing shots
The first step in the egg freezing process is ovarian stimulation, which is done using fertility medications. These medications are designed to stimulate the ovaries to produce multiple eggs, rather than the single egg that is produced during a typical menstrual cycle. These medications are typically administered subcutaneously (under the skin) using a small needle. The shots themselves aren’t pleasant, but they’re quick.
Some women may have a higher pain tolerance than others and some may have more discomfort than others. I personally have a really low pain tolerance, so I was nervous about the shots. But the process was super manageable, and the pain was not as bad as I thought it would be. Here’s what helped for me:
- Icing the spot for a few minutes to numb the area
- Laying down during the process
- Having my husband give me the shots instead of doing them myself
- Remind myself that “you have to want it more than you’re afraid of it”
- Having a good show and some chocolate ready for right after
After a few days of injections in the same area, you may find some bruising. The bruising is usually normal and should disappear within a few days. Most people also experience mild bloating during the process, but it is generally not considered to be painful.
During the egg freezing process, you will get to know “Wanda” – what many in the fertility community affectionately call the ultrasound wand. Vaginal ultrasounds use high-frequency sound waves to create images of the uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes. This helps your doctor understand how your follicles are growing, and if the medications are working.
The ultrasound wand (covered in a condom and gel) is inserted into the vagina, which can cause a feeling of pressure. The procedure itself is not considered to be painful, but some describe it as short-lived mild discomfort.
You will likely need several blood draws during your egg freezing journey to see how your hormones are responding. Blood draws, also known as venipuncture or phlebotomy, is a procedure in which blood is taken from a vein in your arm for laboratory testing.
The pain associated with a blood draw is usually minor, and often described as a "sharp" or "stinging" sensation that lasts for a moment. The discomfort can also come from the tightness of the band that is often used to make the vein prominent and easier to find the vein.
Pain tolerance can vary from person to person, some people may experience a minimal discomfort while others may experience more pain. To minimize the discomfort during the blood draw, it's recommended to relax and breathe deeply during the procedure. If you have a fear of blood draws or needles, inform the technician who may be able to use a smaller needle or a different technique to minimize pain. And if you are prone to experiencing lightheadedness when getting your blood drawn, make sure to let your technician know. Asking if they can do the blood draw while you’re laying down rather than sitting up can make a huge difference!
The egg retrieval
The final step in the egg freezing process is the egg retrieval, where the eggs are then removed using a transvaginal ultrasound-guided needle. This is typically done under anesthesia or sedation, so you are fully relaxed during the procedure. Anesthesia is administered through an IV (intravenous) line so the amount of medication can be adjusted to achieve the desired level of sedation. Because it is not general anesthesia, you can breathe on your own and don’t need breathing tubes (phew!). Okay let’s break down this process and how painful it is:
- Getting the IV line: An IV line will be inserted into a vein, typically in your hand or arm. Some people describe a "sharp" or "stinging" sensation that lasts for a moment when the needle is inserted into the vein.
- The egg retrieval: If you use anesthesia (and most people do), you will be unconscious and unable to feel pain or sensation during the 30-minute procedure.
- Post-retrieval: After the egg retrieval procedure, it's normal to experience some mild to moderate cramping or bloating, similar to the discomfort experienced during menstruation. Your fertility doctor may prescribe pain killers, or give you over-the-counter pain medication to manage any discomfort.
Overall, the egg retrieval is not too painful. The bloating (and constipation) afterwards is considered the most unpleasant part, similar to period cramping.
What to do if you have a low pain tolerance
Even people with low pain tolerance can successfully freeze their eggs. But if you’ve had bad prior medical experiences, the entire process can feel daunting.
First and foremost, it is important to communicate this with your fertility doctor. Let them know that you have a low pain tolerance and ask about the level of pain you can expect at each step, and if there are safe pain management options.
There are a couple of other techniques to help make any pain more manageable:
- Therapy. If your low pain tolerance is rooted in medical anxiety, talk to a therapist. They can help you find techniques (or even medication) to help you go into the procedure with more confidence.
- Practice deep breathing or relaxation techniques. Focusing on your breath and practicing mindfulness can help to distract you from the pain and reduce your perception of it.
- Ice packs. Applying a cold compress to the affected area before and after shots can help to reduce inflammation and numb the area.
- Acupuncture or massage. These therapies can help to reduce pain and promote relaxation.
- Music. I find it helpful to listen to music through headphones during any medical procedure (from a cavity filling to a blood draw). Music can help transcend you to a calmer place, and distract your mind.
Everyone's pain tolerance is different and what may be unbearable for one person may be manageable for another. Don’t ever be ashamed or embarrassed about having a low pain tolerance, it’s totally normal (and manageable!).
Is egg freezing safe?
Yes - egg freezing is considered a safe and well-tolerated procedure. However, like any medical procedure, there are risks.
Anesthesia, which most people opt for during the egg retrieval, is considered safe. Overall, there is only one death per every 200,000 to 300,000 cases. However, this number is even lower for women freezing their eggs. The biggest risk factors for complications from anesthesia are being male, being older, being obese, and having inpatient surgery – none of which are likely for egg freezers
Ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS) is the most common complication of egg freezing, but it is also rare. About 3-6% of cases experience mild or moderate OHSS (headaches, fatigue, nausea, irritability, breast tenderness, abdominal pain, weight gain, and enlarged ovaries). Severe or critical OHSS is less common at 1–3% of cases and presents as ascites and pleural effusion, shortness of breath, dehydration, vomiting, oliguria, hemoconcentration, thromboembolic events, and massive ovary enlargement, which are potentially life-threatening. If you have any of those symptoms, it’s critical to reach out to your doctor ASAP.
There are other risks such as pelvic pain, intraperitoneal bleeding, pelvic infection, damage to organs, and ovarian torsion. It’s best to talk to your doctor about the risks of egg freezing.
Summing it up
Egg freezing is considered to be a safe procedure, with most women reporting mild to moderate pain or discomfort. If you have any concerns about pain or pain management, it’s best to talk to your doctor up front. Let them know your concerns and ask about the level of pain you can expect at each step, and ask if there are safe pain management options. We are here, rooting you on!