An undescended testicle is when one or both of the testicles don’t move into the scrotum before birth. Undescended testicles are also known as cryptorchidism. It’s a fairly common condition, but it does need medical attention.
Causes of cryptorchidism or undescended testicles
In the developing fetus, the testicle forms in the abdomen and later moves down into the scrotum. An undescended testicle is one that doesn’t lie fully within the sac of the scrotum.
Around 2-4% of newborn boys have one or two undescended testicles. Within six months, their testicles usually move down to lie within the scrotum.
An undescended testicle might also happen later, at 4-10 years of age. In this case, the testicles are in the scrotum at birth. As the boy grows, the cord attached to the testis (the spermatic cord) doesn’t grow at the same rate. This causes the testicles to be pulled up into the groin.
Symptoms of cryptorchidism or undescended testicles
Normally, you can see and feel both testicles in the scrotum, which is where they should be.
An undescended testicle is missing from the scrotum and is in the groin or in the lower abdomen. This condition doesn’t cause any pain and doesn’t affect the way your son wees.
An undescended testicle can increase the risk of several health issues, including twisting of the testicle, a hernia, decreased fertility and testicular cancer. This is why it’s important to talk to your doctor if you think your son has an undescended testicle.
An undescended testicle is different from a retractile testicle – this is when a testicle pulls up from the scrotum when your child is cold or gets upset. This is caused by the ‘cremasteric reflex’. The testicle will come down again when he’s warm or has calmed down. If the testicle was down in early life, and goes back to its position in the scrotum, this retraction is often normal.
When to see your doctor about cryptorchidism or undescended testicles
Every now and then in the first 10 years of your son’s life, you should check that you can see and feel both his testicles in his scrotum. It can be a good idea to do this when your son is having a bath.
If you think your son has an undescended testicle, you need to see your GP. The GP will send you and your son to a paediatric surgeon.
You should also see your doctor if your son’s testicle is pulling back into his scrotum when he gets upset or cold. Your doctor will check the condition every 6-12 months. A retractile testicle might develop into an undescended testicle.
Treatment for cryptorchidism or undescended testicles
If your son’s testicle hasn’t descended by the time he’s 6-12 months old, he’ll probably need surgery to bring the testicle down into the scrotum. This procedure is called an orchidopexy. It prevents long-term damage to the testicle.
If your child develops an undescended testicle as he gets older, it’s also likely he’ll need surgery.