Definition: A varicocele is the swelling of the veins inside the scrotum. These veins are found along the cord that holds up a man’s testicles (spermatic cord).
A varicocele forms when valves inside the veins that run along the spermatic cord prevent blood from flowing properly. Blood backs up, leading to swelling and widening of the veins. (This is similar to varicose veins in the legs.)
Most of the time, varicoceles develop slowly. They are more common in men ages 15 to 25 and are most often seen on the left side of the scrotum.
A varicocele in an older man that appears suddenly may be caused by a kidney tumour, which can block blood flow to a vein.
- Enlarged, twisted veins in the scrotum
- Dull ache or discomfort
- Painless testicle lump, scrotal swelling, or bulge in the scrotum
- Possible problems with fertility or decreased sperm count
Some men do not have symptoms.
You will have an exam of your groin area, including the scrotum and testicles. The health care provider may feel a twisted growth along the spermatic cord.
Sometimes the growth may not be able to be seen or felt, especially when you are lying down.
The testicle on the side of the varicocele may be smaller than the one on the other side.
You may also have an ultrasound of the scrotum and testicles, as well as an ultrasound of the kidneys.
A jock strap or snug underwear may help ease discomfort. You may need other treatment if the pain does not go away or you develop other symptoms.
Surgery to correct a varicocele is called varicocelectomy. For this procedure:
- You will receive some type of numbing medicine (anesthesia).
- The urologist will make a cut, most often in the lower abdomen, and tie off the abnormal veins. This directs blood flow in the area to the normal veins. The operation may also be done as a laparoscopic procedure (through small incisions with a camera).
- You will be able to leave the hospital on the same day as your surgery.
- You will need to keep an ice pack on the area for the first 24 hours after surgery to reduce swelling.
An alternative to surgery is varicocele embolization. For this procedure:
- A small hollow tube called a catheter (tube) is placed into a vein in your groin or neck area.
- The provider moves the tube into the varicocele using x-rays as a guide.
- A tiny coil passes through the tube into the varicocele. The coil blocks blood flow to the bad vein and sends it to normal veins.
- You will need to keep an ice pack on the area to reduce swelling and wear a scrotal support for a little while.
This method is also done without an overnight hospital stay. It uses a much smaller cut than surgery, so you will heal faster.
A varicocele is often harmless and often does not need to be treated, unless there is a change in the size of your testicle.
If you have surgery, your sperm count will likely increase. However, it will not improve your fertility. In most cases, testicular wasting (atrophy) does not improve unless surgery is done early in adolescence.
Infertility is a complication of varicocele.
Complications from treatment may include:
- Atrophic testis
- Blood clot formation
- Injury to the scrotum or nearby blood vessel
Call your provider if you discover a testicle lump or need to treat a diagnosed varicocele.
Goldstein M. Surgical management of male infertility. In: Wein AJ, Kavoussi LR, Partin AW, Peters CA, eds. Campbell-Walsh Urology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 25.
Palmer LS, Palmer JS. Management of abnormalities of the external genitalia in boys. In: Wein AJ, Kavoussi LR, Partin AW, Peters CA, eds. Campbell-Walsh Urology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 146.