Exploring Side Benefits of Modern Contraceptive Methods
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Post written by Tishina Okegbe, PhD, MPP, FHI 360
Side effects associated with modern contraceptive methods often get a “bad rap.” Notably, research shows that individuals often discontinue contraceptive use or decide not to use modern contraception because of real or perceived side effects. In many cases of discontinuation or non-use, a logical calculation is made: do the inconvenience or annoyances of contraceptive side effects outweigh the need or desire to contracept? We’ve all heard the stories of bothersome or downright intolerable method-related side effects. For example, some women may wonder if the prospect of heavier periods, irregular spotting, or weight gain is worth it and decide not to use a modern method or opt to use a less effective method.
Well, what if instead of just focusing on method-related side effects, we also considered method-related “side benefits”? Modern methods of contraception are designed to prevent unintended pregnancy, but in many cases, they offer benefits beyond protection from pregnancy. These “bonus” benefits include both non-contraceptive health benefits and lifestyle advantages and can be attractive to individuals seeking contraception. Many currently available modern contraceptive methods have non-contraceptive health benefits, including both hormonal and nonhormonal methods. Let’s take a look at some of these side benefits below.
The combined oral contraceptive pill, often referred to as simply, “the Pill,” combines low doses of the estrogen and progestin hormones and works by suppressing ovulation. The Pill is probably the most well-known contraceptive method for its side benefits as it is commonly prescribed by health providers for a variety of “off-label” treatments. A popular and easy method for women to use, the Pill can help make menstrual cycles more regular and lighter, reduce menstrual cramps, and clear up facial acne. In addition, the Pill is often used to treat the symptoms of endometriosis, a painful condition in which uterine lining tissue overgrows and spreads to locations outside of the uterus. Lastly, the Pill has been shown to reduce the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers, ovarian cysts and anemia. It’s a small little pill that packs a punch!
Other Hormonal Methods
In addition to the pill, there are several other hormonal methods, such as contraceptive implants, patches, intrauterine systems (IUS), vaginal rings and injectables. Many of these methods contain only one hormone, a progestin, and also work by preventing ovulation. They may offer some of the same side benefits as the pill. A further side benefit offered by these methods can include prevention of uterine fibroids, reduced risk of cervical cancer, and lightened periods and/or amenorrhea (i.e., absence of menstruation). Amenorrhea may be particularly appealing to women who suffer from painful, irregular or heavy periods, women who have anemia, or women who simply desire to forgo their monthly visit from “Aunt Flo.”
The Copper IUD
Next, we turn to non-hormonal contraceptive methods that also boast non-contraceptive health benefits. The copper intrauterine device (IUD) is thought to function by disrupting sperm mobility, preventing it from reaching an egg, and therefore preventing fertilization. Copper IUDs may help protect from endometrial and cervical cancers, and possibly ovarian cancer.
Last, but not least, is the condom – both the male and female variety. The condom remains one of the most commonly used contraceptive methods worldwide. It is considered a barrier method because it acts to prevent semen from entering the vagina and if used correctly and consistently (i.e., every time one has sex), condoms are highly effective in preventing pregnancy. In addition to its pregnancy prevention role, condoms are the only modern method on this list that also offer protection against sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV. Especially in geographies where the risk of HIV or other STI acquisition is high, such as in sub-Saharan Africa, this dual protection is most certainly a side benefit. Condoms can also be used in combination with any other contraceptive method to add STI/HIV protection (so called dual method use).
Expert Blog Series on Side Benefits
As you can see, there are several contraceptive methods currently available that arguably offer side benefits. This blog series will take readers on a journey that will include an exploration of the non-contraceptive health and lifestyle benefits of currently available modern methods as well as what new methods–currently in development or being conceptualized–may be offered in the future. We will also address how researchers and developers can intentionally design products with side benefits that are attractive to users, thus promoting satisfaction, uptake, and continuation.
This series will also serve as a call to action to contraceptive scientists, researchers, product developers and funders to recognize that individuals deserve to have contraceptive method options that deliver not only protection from pregnancy but a healthy dose of side benefits as well. Research shows that increases in modern contraceptive use contribute to reductions in maternal and child mortality, unintended pregnancies and unsafe abortions. Therefore, improving user’s experiences with contraception by incorporating more positive method attributes has a direct impact on use and can produce important public health benefits worldwide.