A varicocele is enlargement of the vein within the loose bag of skin that holds your testicles (scrotum). It is similar to a varicose vein that can occur in your leg.
Varicoceles are a common cause of low sperm production and decreased sperm quality, which can cause infertility. However, not all varicoceles affect sperm production. Varicoceles can also cause testicles to fail to develop normally or shrink.
Most varicoceles develop over time. Fortunately, most varicoceles are easy to diagnose and many don’t need treatment. If a varicocele causes symptoms, it often can be repaired surgically.
An estimated 15 per cent of men have these dilated veins, also known as varicoceles but not all suffer symptoms from them.
They were also discovered to be at a raised risk of metabolic syndrome, the medical term for a cluster of conditions — increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels — that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
The study, published in the journal Andrology, was carried out by researchers from Stanford University’s Medical School who analyzed a database of insurance claims filed by 77 million men since 1996.
They identified more than 4,400 reproductive-age men diagnosed with varicoceles between 2001 and 2009, to see whether the condition also put them at risk for health problems.
For comparison, the team also looked at men without varicoceles. All were followed for three years.
The researchers found that compared to men without varicoceles, men with the condition had a significantly higher incidence of heart disease, diabetes and had high concentrations of fat in their blood.
Only men with symptoms, especially fertility problems and scrotal pain, showed increased risk of developing these diseases. Those without symptoms from their varicoceles had no raised incidences. The researchers believe there may be reason to be cautious.
‘To millions of men that are diagnosed with this, a lot of them are told, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ said study author, Michael Eisenberg, assistant professor of urology.
The team believe the enlarged veins are thought to allow more blood to flow through the scrotum and raise its temperature above normal levels.
The heat can impair testicular function leading to lower sperm and testosterone production.
The condition also can cause pain or shrinkage of the testicles, but often there are none of these symptoms and is left unchecked.
The study authors suggest that their findings could mean that even men without symptoms should be closely monitored.
Varicoceles often form during puberty and therefore may be an early marker of heart problems and diabetes.
‘If it’s truly asymptomatic, observation remains appropriate,’ said Dr Eisenberg.
The authors said more research is needed to determine if the condition plays a causative role in these conditions and whether treatment could help prevent disease later on.