The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it's the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don't know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.
The scrotum may appear to be nothing more than a bit of baggy skin, but it serves some very important functions for human health and reproduction. The testicles, which produce sperm, would be unprotected and subject to the elements without the scrotum—so without it, none of us might exist. To learn more, Mental Floss spoke to Brian Levine, a reproductive endocrinologist and fertility specialist at the New York office of the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine.
1. THE SCROTUM HAS BUT ONE HUMBLE PURPOSE.
"The scrotum is a genius," Levine tells Mental Floss. While that may be a stretch, he says that the main purpose of the scrotum "is to hold the testicles outside of the body," which helps to keep the testicles cooler than body temperature. Because sperm are so sensitive to temperature fluctuations, this helps preserve their health.
2. HOT TESTICLES CAN CAUSE HEALTH AND FERTILITY PROBLEMS.
"Increased body temperature or temperature in general [such as a hot tub] leads to chromosomal abnormalities. By keeping the temperature lower you protect the DNA being formed to put the sperm together from having inborn errors," Levine explains.
3. TEMPERATURE REGULATES TESTICLE HEIGHT.
As the body gets colder, muscle fibers bring the scrotum closer to the body to regulate them. When the person is warmer, they will hang lower from the body. "The average person has one testicle higher than the other," Levine says. Size and shape variance of testicles is not in and of itself cause for concern—unless you experience a sudden change.
4. COOLER SPERM ALSO SWIM BETTER …
Also by keeping the testicles at a lower temperature, metabolically, Levine says, "you keep sperm swimming slower, so you end up preserving them."
5. … WHICH IS WHY SOME HAVE SUGGESTED EXPOSING THE SCROTUM TO OPEN FLAME OR A HOT-WATER SOAK.
A 2013 study [PDF] on birth control methods of an indigenous culture in Zimbabwe describes how men were instructed to expose their testicles to "above average heat from fire" in the belief that this would weaken the sperm. While there is a connection between temperature and sperm health, this is not a recommended practice for birth control as it is unlikely to successfully reduce the sperm count. In addition, the study notes, "testicles with too high of a body temperature are associated with testicular cancers," though others argue that the jury is still out on that purported connection. Either way, you should probably keep your scrotum away from open flame.
In a similar vein, Marthe Voegeli, a Swiss doctor and early pioneer in fertility in the 1950s, designed a study in which men sat in a shallow or testes-only bath of 116°F for 45 minutes daily for three weeks. Her study claimed that this resulted in between four and six months of infertility. Fertility returned to normal eventually, and children born of those men were healthy and normal. She took her method to India, to help families suffering from famine and poverty prevent further pregnancies. While she claimed her methods to be successful, most doctors today would not recommend this as a reliable contraceptive practice.
6. YOU CAN GET MELANOMA OF THE SCROTUM.
Even the scrotum is susceptible to cancer, Levine points out. "Wherever there's skin, you can get melanoma," he says. This can be a result of metastases of cancer that spread from somewhere else in the body, or, if you're a nude sunbather, be warned: "If you expose it to sunlight, you can get melanoma."
7. LACK OF A SCROTUM CAN MEAN THIS …
If you are male, not prepubescent, and don't have a scrotum, it may mean you have undescended testicles, Levine says, "which can end up leading to infertility." Most testicles will descend eventually, but sometimes they can be helped along by surgery.
8. BE AWARE OF THESE COMMON CONDITIONS OF THE SCROTUM.
Common issues of the scrotum that may require surgical intervention include varicoceles, which are essentially varicose veins in the scrotum that can cause infertility by pooling blood, which can effect sperm count and motility. Varicoceles can also cause testicles to fail to develop normally or shrink. A hydrocele, which doctors informally call "water on the testicle," Levine says, is simply a fluid-filled cyst that surrounds a testicle and causes swelling in the scrotum. Levine adds that since the scrotum allows for good evaluation of testicles, "If you feel any lumps, bumps or abnormalities, you should see a medical professional."
9. SURGICAL TECHNIQUES FOR THE SCROTUM AND TESTICLES HAVE COME A LONG WAY.
Should you need surgery for one of those conditions, or for a vasectomy, Levine reassures that modern day surgical techniques "mostly spare the scrotum and require a minimal, barely visible incision in the testicle." Weill Cornell Medical Center has even perfected what they call a no-scalpel vasectomy that uses specialized forceps instead.
10. WHY WERE CHIMNEY SWEEPS PRONE TO SCROTAL CANCER?
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, chimney sweeps—who were often young boys because they were small enough to fit—would develop scrotal cancer from creosote collecting between the skin folds on the scrotum.
Sir Percival Pott, an English surgeon considered the father of orthopedics and the first to draw the connection between occupations and certain illnesses, also made the connection between chimney sweeps and scrotal cancer, writing: " … there is a different disease peculiar to a certain set of people, which has not, at least to my knowledge, been publicly noticed; I mean the chimney-sweeper's cancer. It is a disease which makes its first attack on, and appearance in, the inferior part of the scrotum; where it produces a superficial, painful, ragged, ill-looking sore, with hard and rising edges: the trade call it the soot-wart." (We know now that a chemical in soot caused genetic damage to chromosome 17.)
After this connection was made, physicians recommended that chimney sweeps change their clothes weekly and wash their genitals daily.