Contraception: Do you know your options?
WHEN was the last time you had a good chat with a healthcare professional about contraception?
As a survey reveals that many women don't feel they're being given enough information, Abi Jackson at the choices available.
There was a time, somewhere in my mid-teens, when contraception talk was fairly frequent. Trading stories with friends, blushing through Sex Ed classes at school, assuring my mother that, yes, I was being sensible.
Now in my 30s, the topic hardly ever crops up, and it's ages since I've talked about it with my GP. It came as no surprise when a recent survey revealed that 30% of women hadn't had a conversation with their healthcare professional about contraception in the past year.
The results also suggest women aren't being fully informed of their options.
More than two-thirds (70%) feel they're not receiving enough information on long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) - in fact, 65% admitted they'd never heard the term before.
The survey of 3,000 women was commissioned by Merck Sharp & Dohme Ltd (MSD) who, in partnership with the Family Planning Association (FPA), have launched a campaign called Love, Life & LARCs, aimed at reducing misconceptions and encouraging communication between healthcare professionals and women about contraceptive options.
"The results made disappointing reading," says GP and media medic Dr Dawn Harper. "I think sometimes when a woman asks for 'the pill', she may really mean that she wants a form of contraception other than condoms. That may well be the pill, but it could be that a different form would be more suitable.
"There are 15 different types of contraception, and it's important healthcare professionals make sure women know their options, and that women feel they can talk openly about the issue."
A quick survey of my own, among friends and colleagues, confirms that these conversations, all too often, haven't been happening.
"My doctor won't give out contraception due to religious reasons - his!" says Beth, 41. "He even looks shocked if it's mentioned. It means people have to go to a separate, overcrowded clinic, which is a total pain."
Examples like this may (thankfully) be rare, but cases of people feeling poorly informed are common.
Stephanie, 35, suffered severe, heavy bleeding after having the coil fitted. "I bled so heavily I thought I'd pass out," she recalls. "I had to turn back home on the way to work on several occasions, due to the bleeding."
She returned to her doctor and was told to give it time to settle. "It didn't, and after a year I had it removed," she says.
"I'd initially been determined I didn't want anything containing hormones, which was why I was given this type of coil, but they didn't mention that it could cause so much bleeding; I just wish they'd taken time to explain there can be side-effects."
Stephanie now has an IUS, a type of coil which releases hormones, and it turns out the method she'd wanted to avoid actually works well for her.
For Rebecca, 26, like so many other women, the first pill she was given didn't agree with her - neither did the second or third variety she tried.
"From the age of 21 to 25 I tried different variations, but none seemed the right fit," she explains. "They made me too emotional, too angry, too hungry, and I wasn't happy."
Wanting something "hassle and hormone-free", a friend suggested she try an IUD - what the non-hormonal/copper coil is now known as - and she's finally found a method that suits her.
"The only downside is I do now get cramps with my periods, whereas I once didn't, but it's a small price to pay to be a more emotionally balanced person," she says.
That two people have had such different experiences comes as no surprise to Dr Harper.
"I think of contraception like the little black dress - what suits one woman just isn't right on another, and what looks a million dollars at 20 isn't necessarily the right choice at 40," she says. "Contraception needs to fit you and your lifestyle."
Sometimes it can mean trying a few different options before finding the right method for you - "but the more your doctor or nurse knows about you, your routine, your medical history, then the better chance we have of getting it right", Harper adds.
Side-effects from hormonal methods vary from irritating, right through to life-blighting and medically risky, like high blood pressure and blood clots, for instance. Though life-threatening risks like this are extremely rare, it's important that they're monitored, and sometimes certain types of contraception may not be suitable for some women.
Where this is the case, though, there is almost certainly another type that will be suitable, which is why communication between healthcare professionals is so important.
At the same time, for some, contraception can have additional health and life-enhancing results, such as minimising painful and heavy periods, regulating erratic cycles, and even reducing some cancer risks.
Preventing unwanted pregnancy may be the key purpose, but it's not a one-size-fits-all issue, especially as lifestyles and routines vary. Barrier methods, like condoms, also offer protection against many sexually transmitted infections (STIs) which LARCS don't.
However, LARCS offer a simple long-lasting solution, which don't rely on having to remember to take a pill at the same time every day, and don't become less effective if you suffer a bout of sickness.
While most women go to their GP or practice nurse for contraception, Harper notes that you can also make appointments at family planning or sexual health clinics.
:: For more information, visit www.talkchoice.co.uk
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