Is IVF safe? Here's what new research says.

February 08, 2019
Katherine Flemming

When all you want to do is get pregnant, wading through the fertility research can feel really overwhelming. What's safe? What isn't? 

Well, according to some brand-new research, IVF poses some risk to the mother's health. In a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal,  researchers from Montréal's McGill University found women who had undergone IVF—the fertility treatment that involves combining an egg and sperm outside of the woman's body and then re-inserting the embryo—were at a slightly higher risk of developing severe complications than women who become pregnant naturally.

"There is a lot of research out there that focuses on the baby's health, but I wanted to focus on the mom," says lead researcher Dr. Natalie Dayan, director of obstetric medicine at McGill University Health Centre.

Between 2006 and 2012, the researchers matched IVF patients with women who had very similar characteristics such as age, previous pregnancies who hadn't used fertility treatments. 

The results? 

“We found for every 1,000 of the women in our study who received an infertility treatment, about 30 of those women experienced a severe pregnancy complication,” said Dayan.  For the women who didn't, the number was 22 per one thousand. So while the difference was mild, it's still worth noting. "It's not an enormous risk, but it’s definitely higher than women who didn't [use IVF]," says Dayan. The lift in numbers didn't surprise Dayan.

The severe pregnancy complications (44 were named in the study) included, but was not limited to: severe postpartum hemorrhage (to the point of requiring hospital admission), high blood pressure, severe preeclampsia, and intensive care unit admission. The women were followed for 42 days after delivery, as that is considered a timeline in which a re-hospitalization would most likely be related to the pregnancy.

As well, the study determined that although IVF patients had a higher chance of pregnancy complications, it wasn't the same for women who had other forms fertility treatments, such as ovulation induction or IUI (intrauterine insemination). "IVF usually involves an ovarian stimulation, and a woman who has tried IVF possibly hasn't also tried IUI," says Dayan.

With IVF, it's common to have several rounds before achieving a positive pregnancy test, and there are high doses of hormones required—for the pregnancy to be successful, those hormones are requirement.

"Overall, it is quite safe and effective for women who are struggling with infertility, but it is important to not that the positive effects may also have unwanted side effects."

As for the why, Dayan wasn't able to comment on that. "We don't really know why there's a higher chance of complications for women who undergo IVF treatment, so I can't comment on that," she says. But the message is this: "This is not a cause for alarm—do not be overly frightened by these numbers." says Dayan. "But we need to go open with our eyes open, so our health can be as good as it possibly can be; we want as minimal complications as possible."

The biggest takeaway is to always remember, when a new study is released, to take pause a minute and read it carefully. "In science and medicine, we get involved in studies and we present them to doctors and publish in medical journals. Occasionally the media picks it up, so it's important that the message gets translated," says Dayan. Sometimes, that information gets lost in translation (from researchers to journalists to the person reading it). Dayan's advice? "Take what you read with a grain of salt," she says. If you're looking for more information, you could also bring it to your doctor to discuss further. 

When speaking with a fertility doctor, they will educate you on the side effects of undergoing fertility treatments, from drugs to how invasive the procedure is. 

But if you really want a baby, you'll stop at nothing to make your dream come true.