I Tried an IUD for Birth Control—Here’s What Happened
If you’re a sexually active woman trying to manage your birth control, you may know all too well that sinking feeling of having your pill prescription run out exactly as you’re headed out of town. (Not to mention insurance snafus, long lines to pick up prescriptions, condoms, the dreaded condom breakage and the subsequent trip to the pharmacy to pick up Plan B.) If any of this sounds like your current birth control situation, you’re not alone. For decades, I’ve juggled my birth control, at best panicking that a subscription was about to run out; at worst, going off the pill when I couldn’t get ahold of my doctor to refill my scripts and going back on when I had the pills in hand. (I highly recommend not following my lead.)
This summer, when my current gynecologist retired, I found myself sitting across from a new doctor and telling him while I knew I did not want children, I wasn’t sure which birth control option was right for me anymore. After a long talk and a few days of research, I tried an IUD for birth control—and here’s what happened.
How Does an IUD Work?
The IUD, or intrauterine device, is a small, T-shaped plastic piece that, when inserted into the uterus, works as a long-term (think: 5-12 years) birth control option. There are currently two types of IUDs on the market: hormonal IUDs (that use progestin) and copper IUDs (plastic wrapped with a small amount of copper). Essentially, both of these types alter how sperm cells move, thereby preventing pregnancy. Sperm avoids copper, thereby avoiding swimming toward the egg; hormonal IUDs thicken cervical mucus to hinder or trap sperm, and may prevent ovulation altogether.
The Insertion of My IUD
The day of my hormonal IUD insertion, I arrived at the doctor’s office having taking two Advil and armed with a list of questions I wanted answers to before I hopped up on the table—namely, how bad was this going to hurt? The internet is awash with horror stories from women who say the pain of insertion was so excruciating, they passed out during the procedure. Passed out?
My doctor listened to all of my concerns, then assured me that the reason I was finding these stories so readily was because happy stories don’t get as many clicks. (Fair point.) He then explained that he would use lidocaine to numb the area where he’d insert the IUD, so the most pain I would feel would be a tiny pinch. He admitted that while there are doctors who don’t use a numbing agent during the procedure due to cost, he would never not administer one—because otherwise, it could indeed be very painful.
My fears allayed, I donned the paper gown and slipped by feet into the stirrups. My doctor walked me through each step of the procedure—speculum, lidocaine needle and “just a quick pinch,” IUD being inserted—while distracting me with an impromptu quiz on 80s sitcoms. And then, in about five minutes, it was done. No passing out from the pain. No dramatic screaming on the table. In fact, while I did feel a quick pinch from the lidocaine needle, the insertion of the IUD was painless—I felt a bit of pressure and a little ache, and then it was over.
I left the office with an appointment scheduled for a follow-up a week later, and instructions to abstain from sex for two weeks so as not to disrupt the placement of the IUD—though this was a personal preference from my doctor and not from Mirena, the maker of my IUD. The doctor told me that I could bleed for several weeks or spot on and off for about three to six months. Given the fact that my periods have gotten increasingly heavier with age, this didn’t phase me. I was now the proud owner of a stress-free birth control option… one that I (in theory) wouldn’t need to think about for another five years.
Living With an IUD
Though the IUD insertion was seamless, the following month came as a surprise to me. Two weeks after I got the IUD, I took a 19-hour flight and a two week vacation, during which I bled… a lot. But it was the cramps that shocked me the most; despite a steady stream of Advil to help manage the pain, there were moments that literally left me breathless or stopped me in my tracks.
The cramps were due to my uterus getting used to playing hostess to a foreign body, and logically, I knew that this was normal—yet I was still a bit blindsided by just how powerful these cramps were, and how much I was bleeding. I had a 17-day period that first month—a record, even for me.
So, What Do I Think About the IUD?
As I approach the six-month mark with my hormonal IUD, I am happy to report that the cramps are few and far between, though they are still much more powerful than any cramps I had prior to insertion. My “periods” are mostly episodes of light spotting, and while I can’t predict when that spotting will occur, if it becomes heavy enough to warrant a response, I use my menstrual cup for a day or two and then it’s gone.
I had read horror stories (thanks, Internet) about women battling horrible acne after they got an IUD; while I do still battle the occasional breakout, the tell-tale pre-period hormonal bumps along my chin and jawline have been significantly reduced. Certainly, my skin looks much better than it did when I hopped on and off the birth control pill.
A friend of mine was so nauseous for the first week after she had her hormonal IUD inserted that she was unable to leave her bed—this was not my experience at all. Luckily, I have been nausea-free since day one.
In addition to lighter—and often, nearly non-existent—“periods,” the greatest payoff of my IUD has been the peace of mind that I am protected against unwanted pregnancy. I no longer have to worry that my insurance has changed yet again, or my doctor is on vacation and can’t refill my prescription, or that the condom may break. Having agency over my own sexual health for the long-term is worth every side effect I’ve incurred as a result of getting an IUD—side effects that fade away with each passing week. My only regret is that I didn’t get one sooner.
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