Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

The Truth About Skyla

June 4th, 2013 by Holly Grigg-Spall

Mirena Intra-uterine Device
Public domain image

Do women using the Mirena hormonal IUD have their period?

Does it suppress the hormone cycle for all women or just some?

How does it work to prevent pregnancy exactly?

It seems these questions can’t be answered even by the assumed experts. We are told the Mirena “partially” suppresses ovulation and that some women will bleed and some won’t bleed at all. Mostly we hear that the impact must be limited to the reproductive organs because the level of synthetic hormone used is so low.

In an article entitled ‘Mirena: The Other Side of the Story’, AAA Ewies, a consultant gynaecologist at a UK NHS hospital wrote, “The argument used that serum concentration of LNG is extremely low and that its influence on ovarian function is limited has been disputed recently by many investigators. Xiao et al. found that Mirena was associated with substantial systemic absorption of the synthetic progesterone and recorded levels equivalent to two synthetic progesterone-containing ‘minipills’ taken daily on a continuous basis. A study documented that 21% of Mirena users experienced progestogenic adverse effects. Wahab and Al-Azzawi reported that Mirena suppresses oestrogen production, inducing a clinical situation similar to a premature menopause in at least 50% of treated women”.

In an effort to cut through the confusion, Bayer Pharmaceuticals went ahead and released the Skyla hormonal IUD in February of this year. Skyla is smaller than the Mirena, lasts three instead of five years, but contains the same synthetic progesterone and is also 99% effective at preventing pregnancy.

It was interesting timing, considering the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) almost simultaneously released a recommendation that doctors provide the IUD (it didn’t specify if they meant the hormonal or copper device in the statement) as “first-line contraceptive options for sexually active adolescents”. Teens often struggle with heavier or painful periods and are far more likely to be offered the Skyla, which is said to lighten bleeding, than the Paragard copper IUD, which is thought to increase bleeding. Not to mention the Skyla costs significantly more, has a shorter span of use, and is backed by a Bayer’s marketing department. The Mirena has been advertised heavily since its release in 2001 and the aggressiveness of the campaign – with television commercials proclaiming Mirena would make a woman “look and feel great” – was reprimanded by the FDA.

As a consequence of this combination of the ACOG recommendation and the release of Skyla we have seen articles in recent weeks with headlines such as ‘Could New Skyla Contraception Help Women Reach For The Stars’ and yet more that worry over the lack of knowledge that is preventing doctors from providing the IUD to young women or preventing young women from asking for an IUD. There was a time when IUDs were only given to women who had already had children – in part because of concerns regarding the devices causing damage that led to infertility. The tone is always the same – why are they keeping this near-perfect sounding birth control choice from us? If it is an undercover marketing technique to get women riled up about their access to hormonal IUDs then that department of Bayer deserves a raise.

Some of the doctors may have not received the memo but others may be concerned about the mounting lawsuits regarding the serious physical side effects of the Mirena, or at least they should be. The production of Skyla appears to be a deliberate effort by Bayer to reach the teens and twenty-somethings market. Even Bitch magazine got in on the advertorial action last week linking through their website to a suspicious looking post that seemed much like a marketing placement. Most of the media coverage does not flag the difference between the hormonal IUD and the copper, blithely using the term “IUD” in the same way the phrase “birth control” is now synonymous with “hormonal birth control.”

Professor at the University of California at Riverside Chikako Takeshita outlines in her book, The Global Biopolitics of the IUD, the history of the IUD, from its coercive use in developing countries to its presentation as a convenient method for the modern woman in the US and Europe. “The ACOG recommendation and release of Skyla is clearly going to expand the market for these devices”, she states, “This normalizes the use of long-acting contraceptives. Such normalization makes the use of the devices a technological imperative. The idea is that if a solution, a technological fix, to the problem of unintended pregnancy exists then you must take it. It silences other ways to approach the problem. The IUD doesn’t fix the fundamental issue which is the lack of sex education for teenagers”.

Rather than seizing the ACOG recommendation as simply a victory in the war against the teen pregnancy “epidemic” we must look critically at the potential result. This may seem like the easy answer, but is it the right one?

Do you love your LARC?

December 12th, 2012 by Laura Wershler

Throughout the contraceptive realm, LARCs are being heralded as the best thing since Cinderella’s glass slipper with little acknowledgement that for many women LARCs are more like Snow White’s poisoned apple.

Nov. 25 to Dec. 1, 2012, was LARC Awareness Week, billed by the California Family Health Council as “a chance to increase awareness about LARCs as a safe, effective, and long-acting birth control method.” Women were invited to contribute video messages on the theme Why I Love My LARC.

This catchy acronym stands for long-acting reversible contraceptive, and the push is on for many more women to choose this form of birth control. Make no mistake, it’s all about control: What the doctor puts in, only the doctor can take out. Ergo, it’s 99% effective. You can quit taking your pills, rip off your patch, or NOT show up for your next Depo-Provera shot. But if you hate the side effects caused by your IUD or implant, you’ve gotta go see a health-care provider to have it removed.

I’ve challenged the Contraceptive Choice Project study that praised the effectiveness of LARCs over the pill, patch and ring. I took issue with the ACOG recommendation that LARCs are the best methods for teenagers. Now there’s more hype with LARC Awareness Week.

According to the awareness campaign, LARCs include the ParaGard (copper) IUD, Mirena (progestin) IUD and Implanon, a non-biodegradable flexible rod, also containing progestin, that is inserted under the skin and left for up to three years. (Here’s a story about the rods going missing in women’s bodies.) Read the patient information about Implanon. Would you agree to have it inserted into your body?

Women who hate Implanon are speaking out. So are women who don’t love their ParaGard or Mirena IUDs. On YouTube, a video by a women with Mirena issues has over 6000 views;  Why I Love My LARC, posted 8 days earlier, has about 100.

The old-school LARC – Depo-Provera – is not on the campaign’s list of LARCs, though it is heavily used in the United States. Holly Grigg-Spall recently reported that “one in five African American teens are on the Depo shot, far more than white teens.” Hmm. Will they all be switched to other LARCs when, or if, they come back for their next shot? Perhaps Depo is not on the list because women can discontinue this contraceptive without clinician intervention. But it’s probably because Depo causes bone density loss – and because this LARC is not a lark. Women are sharing their Depo stories on another re:Cycling post:  Coming off Depo-Provera can be a women’s worst nightmare. You can find more bad news about this LARC than any other.

What about getting your LARC removed if you hate it instead of love it? One re:Cycling blogger shared what happened when she wanted her ParaGard IUD removed:

I HATED the thing but the nurse who was supposed to take it out tried to talk me out of it for a good 20 minutes. Finally I was like ‘”Why do you want me to keep this item in my uterus so badly?” And she said, “I just don’t want to see you get rid of your very effective birth control.”

This is not the only reason why women who end up hating their LARCs will be discouraged from rejecting them. The Affordable Care Act requires all health plans issued on or after August 1, 2012 to provide no-charge access to FDA-approved LARCs. What’s it going to take to convince health-care providers to remove an expensive contraceptive – provided for free – that was supposed to last for three to 10 years?

Maybe a YouTube video about Why I Hate My LARC will help make it as easy to get rid of one as it now is to get one.

I’m fed up with birth control propaganda

October 17th, 2012 by Laura Wershler

Birth control in the U.S. has become synonymous with drugs and devices. The pill, patch, or ring; Depo-Provera or hormonal implant; copper IUD or Mirena IUD; traditional hormonal birth control or long-acting reversible contraceptives. All impact the function of the menstrual cycle; some suppress it completely. As a pro-choice menstrual cycle advocate I take issue with the fact that keeping your cycle and contracepting effectively are now considered mutually exclusive.

A widely published Associated Press story tells us that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists now recommends hormonal implants and IUDs as the best birth control methods for teenagers. The research this recommendation is based on did not even study pregnancy outcomes for women using condoms, barriers, or fertility awareness methods. These methods were not among the free contraceptives offered to study participants. Another story reported that ”the new guidelines say that physicians should talk about (implants and IUDs) with sexually active teens at every doctor visit.” This sounds like a hardcore sales pitch to me. I expressed my concerns about pushing LARCs on teenagers in a previous re:Cycling post.

Drugs and devices also figure prominently in Switching Contraceptives EffectivelyNew York Times health writer Jane E. Brody writes about the mistakes women make when switching between birth control methods that can result in unintended pregnancies. The reasons women switch are explored and a link to a resource on how to switch methods successfully is provided.

The Reproductive Health Access Project developed the pamphlet to help women prevent gaps in contraception when they change methods. The premise is a good one:

What’s the best way to switch from one birth control method to another? To lower the chance of getting pregnant, avoid a gap between methods. Go straight from one method to the next, with no gaps between methods.

But the pamphlet developers made the huge false assumption that all women just need or want to try another drug or devise. It focuses ONLY on these method — how to switch from the pill to Depe-Provera or the copper IUD, or how to switch from the Mirena IUD to the progestin implant. Condoms and barrier methods are considered useful ONLY for the transition period between drugs and devices. Fertility Awareness Methods are ignored completely. The resource comes across as propaganda for drug- and device-based birth control methods.

Neither Brody nor those behind the Reproductive Health Access Project seem to understand that this approach contributes to the unplanned pregnancy rate by failing to acknowledge that many women are fed up with contraceptive drugs and devices. These women want support and information to switch away from these methods. They are falling though the contraceptive gap created by this failure.

Is it any wonder that some women stop using their contraceptives without talking to their physicians? Maybe they are fed up with doctors like Ruth Lesnewski, education director of the Reproductive Health Access Project, who offers trite admonishment that side effects ”will go away with time” and insists that caution about using long-acting methods like the IUD or hormonal implant is “outdated.” Real health issues are associated with all these methods. I guess Dr. Lesnewski doesn’t read health blogs where women document their frustration about side effects and dismissive health-care providers.

This article places blame for contraceptive failure on women not knowing how birth control works, instead of where the blame really belongs — on the blind spot that keeps sexual and reproductive health-care providers from seeing, and serving, women who are sick and tired of drugs and devices.

As for the ACOG recommendation on the best birth control methods for teens? It’s just a step away from coercive, patriarchal decision-making by doctors for teenage girls, and a threat to the sexual agency of many young women.

Coming Off The Pill: Considering “forget-about-it” birth control?

May 30th, 2012 by Laura Wershler

If you quit the pill would you replace it with forget-about-it or mindful birth control?

How you feel about your body, your menstrual cycle and your sexual relationship(s) will influence your choice. Another consideration might be your attitude towards an unintended pregnancy.

Photo: Public Domain // LARC birth control methods are highly effective, in part, because women can "forget about them."

On the Coming off the Pill (COTP) MIND MAP GUIDE I proposed in an earlier post in this Coming Off The Pill series, mindful methods dominate the Birth Control branch: condom, spermicide, diaphragm, fertility awareness and copper IUD. Only the latter could be considered forget-about-it birth control.     Have it put in, then forget about it.

What got me thinking about this dichotomy is the Contraceptive CHOICE Project, a new study by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. More than 7500 participants were free to choose, with all costs covered, from a range of contraceptives. (Diaphragms and fertility awareness training were not included.) Contraceptive failure rates over the course of the study were compared for the methods offered. The key result?

“Women who used birth-control pills, the patch or vaginal ring were 20 times more likely to have an unintended pregnancy than those who used longer-acting forms such as an intrauterine device (IUD) or implant.”

The difference in effectiveness was even more profound for women under 21 who used the pill, patch or ring. Their risk for unintended pregnancy with these methods, versus long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs), was almost twice as high as for older women.

The reason for the higher failure rates is human error. Women, and especially women under 21 it seems, don’t always remember to take their pills, change their patches, or check to ensure their rings haven’t fallen out. These methods require a certain degree of mindfulness. The reason that LARCs are more effective, according to senior author Dr. Jeffrey Peipert, is because women can forget about them after clinicians put the devices in place.

There are several things I find troubling about the researchers’ contention that forget-about-it birth control is better just because it’s more effective, and that these methods should be among the first offered to women by clinicians.

Firstly, they fail to acknowledge that many women do not tolerate these “forget-about-them” methods. Among the choices made available to study participants were the contraceptive shot, which I presume was Depo-Provera, and an unspecified hormonal implant. (Implants are slow-release hormonal devices inserted under the skin of a woman’s arm.) Side effects and ongoing problems with such methods abound, and are anything but forgettable. IUDs, both copper and the hormonal Mirena, have fewer drawbacks but they aren’t problem free either. Women experience a range of side effects with the copper IUD. As for the Mirena, some women love it, others hate it.

Secondly, the implication that women under 21 especially should be encouraged (perhaps coerced?) by clinicians to use forget-about-it LARC birth control methods just makes me sad. I get that preventing teen pregnancy is an important public health goal, but the potential for harm to young women’s overall health and psycho-sexual development by the use of such methods, Depo-Provera and contraceptive implants in particular, should be cause for caution and concern.

Maybe it’s time to research mindful birth control methods. Might more women choose barrier and fertility awareness based methods if expert training and support to ensure confident, effective use of these methods were provided free of charge, as were the expensive LARC methods in this study? I guarantee researchers would have no trouble finding women to participate.

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.