The Good News about Birth Control Pills

I’ve been bitching lately about the absence of positive news about birth control in the media. So today, on Blog for Choice Day, I am going to stop bitching and do something about it. Because choice is about more than just abortions – it’s about helping women control their reproductive destinies. In my opinion, we can do that best by providing safe and effective means of pregnancy prevention, and by helping women make informed and individualized choices about birth control. And that means letting them know not only about the risks, but about the benefits of birth control.

Here’s a list of all the good things oral contraceptives can do. Pass it on to a woman you love:

  • Prevent Ovarian Cancer: Research has consistently shown that taking oral contraceptives reduces the risk of ovarian cancer. As little as 3 months of pill use confers protection, but the longer you use pills, the greater reduction in risk. Protection occurs in both younger and older women, with or without a family history of ovarian cancer. I prescribe pills frequently in my practice for this indication, mostly in women with a family history of ovarian cancer.
  • Prevent Uterine Cancer: Up to a 40% reduction in this risk with long term use of the pill. I prescribe the pill for this reason in high risk women (those with irregular periods, family history, or other risk factors for this cancer.)
  • Treat Acne: Although only a few brands have bothered to get the FDA approval to be marketed specifically for acne treatment, we docs have been using pills for this indication for years. Almost any brand of pills will do; I recommend ones containing the progestins norgestimate, norethindrone, drosperinone or desogestrel. I prescribe pills frequently for this condition, and trust me, it really works!
  • Treat Hirsutism (excess hair growth): By lowering testosterone levels, the pill effectively reduces new hair growth. You will still need electrolysis to treat the hair that is already established, and you have to be patient. But if you are, you will see real improvement in 6 months to a year.
  • Reduce Menstrual Cramps and Menstrual Flow : The best treatment I know of for this condition. And, if you take your pills the right way, you can eliminate your period altogether (an advantage if you are traveling, have finals, or just need a break.)
  • Prevent Ovarian Cysts: The pill is a great treatment for women who experience reccurent functional ovarian cysts. Higher dose pills, the patch or the vaginal ring are more effective than lower doses, and continuous use works best.
  • Treat PMS: Some women find that the pill reduces the physical symptoms of PMS, although for most, other medications are often needed. A new formulation of a pill containing drosperinone and estrogen (currently marketed as Yasmin) has been shown in research studies to be effective for PMS. It has not yet been FDA approved for this indication.
  • Improve Fibrocystic Breast Disease: Surprised by this one, aren’t you? It’s true.
  • Treat Endometriosis: The best way to use the pill for treatment of endometriosis is to take it continuously, that is, without allowing the monthly break for a menstrual period.
  • Prevent Mittleschmertz: Great word, huh? It’s German for “middle pain”, and refers to the pain of ovulation that some women experience every month.

Oh, and one more –

  • Prevent Pregnancy (and abortions): When used properly, oral contraceptives are almost 100% effective at preventing pregnancy. They also reduce the risk of ectopic pregnancy (pregnancy in the fallopian tubes or ovary). Women who need to avoid estrogen (such as those with increased risks for blood clots or stroke, women with active liver disease, or smokers over age 35) can still use progesterone-only birth control pills (we call the POP’s). POP’s have just a slightly lower efficacy than estrogen-containing pills, making them an extremely safe and more effective method than non-hormonal methods like condoms or the diaphragm.

If you want to read more about the benefits and uses of oral contraceptives, or about any method of contraception, check out these sites:Update on Oral Contraceptives (American Family Physician) , Planned Parenthood, Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, Contraceptive Information for Teens


17 Responses to The Good News about Birth Control Pills

  1. Bravo!

    Very informative. Now if we could just get REAL education about sex, sexuality, and reproductive choices into our schools.

  2. I had a blood clot which traveled to my lung during one of my pregnancies, so that left estrogen-based pills right out. Ultimately I opted for an IUD, and I have to say I think it’s great. I never have to remember take a pill, or wait in line at the pharmacy. It’s cheap, too: I remember thinking, I just got ten years of birth control for under $300. At my age it’s just possible that it’s the last dime I’ll ever spend on birth control. Talk about one-stop shopping.

  3. You should do it anyway — you’d be completely surprised how many people still think IUDs are scary and dangerous after the Dalkon Shield stuff. There’s also significant differences between the hormonally-enhanced and copper-containing ones.

  4. I love the IUD too! I was born in 1980 and hadn’t heard of it.

    I tried the pill. Went through 5 different kinds and had too much weight loss in some (I didn’t have weight to lose) and mood swings with others that didn’t improve after waiting it out. I gave up and relied on just condoms. I wasn’t reliable with anything else.

    My Midwife recommended it to me after my last child. I read a few horror stories online but medical websites didn’t reflect the stories. I’m really happy with it.

  5. I’ve had three surgeries for endomoetriosis but still had to take narcotics for menstrual cramps until I started taking the pill continually and stopped having periods. Its great because I also no longer have PMS. Since my aunt (mom’s sister) died of ovarian cancer I am happy that I am reducing that risk. I know that if I get an estrogen sensitive breast cancer the pill may make it grow faster, but breast cancer is easier to catch early than ovarian cancer so I’m at peace with that risk. I do have a sonogram done of my ovaries each year at my annual gyn appointment.

  6. Just something I'm curious about… if I'm on the pill but I still get cysts (they are uncomfortable and at times very uncomfortable, but not out right painful or debilitating) should I be concerned? My current doc doesn't seem too worried but it does make me wonder.. (also, I use Yaz…GREAT for pms, pmdd treatment! holy cow).

  7. Anonymous-

    Recurring painful functional ovarian cysts are a benign but bothersome condition for some women. These can occur even on birth control pills, especially as pills have gotten lower dose over time. Pill formulations that have less days off (placebo days), or go between 3 and 12 months without days off may be better for such women than pills with 7 days off.. Alternatively a high dose pill, the patch or depo provera can be used. If there is cyclic pain, endometriosis is also a possiblity, and for such women, continuous pills use (seasonale or seasonique, or any pill taken continuously without placebos) is a treatment used.

    Talk to your doctor about your options.

    Thanks for reading.

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