Let’s Talk Contraception: Birth Control Pills — Not Just for Preventing Pregnancy

pillThere has been a lot of political posturing recently about whether the government should require health insurance to provide birth control without a co-pay as part of a preventive health care package. So many people, including politicians, can only “see” the contraceptive side, which is pretty important, by the way. Approximately 15.8 in 100,000 women in the United States die from pregnancy or pregnancy-related issues yearly, and that number has doubled in the past 25 years. We have one of the worst maternal death rates of all developed nations, right near the bottom of the list.

Birth control pills can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including painful periods, acne, endometriosis, and uterine fibroids.

But putting all that aside, let’s look at the how oral contraceptives pills (OCPs) are actually used in this country, and for what reasons besides contraception. You may argue that many birth control pills are only approved for contraception purposes by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so other uses are not valid. But many drugs that may have narrow conditions of approved use are often prescribed off-label by physicians when they have data and information about how effective they can be for other conditions where not much else works.

According to a 2011 study using data from the 2006–2008 National Survey for Family Growth, the Guttmacher Institute reported that 14 percent of all women using birth control pills — that’s 1.5 million women — use them for purposes other than preventing pregnancy. Granted, 86 percent of OCP users report using them for birth control. But over the years, these OCPs have helped many people as treatments for dysmenorrhea, menorrhagia, endometriosis, menstrual-related migraines, acne, uterine fibroids, and polycystic ovarian syndrome.

The combination of hormones in these OCPs works to relieve women of the symptoms related to many of these uncomfortable disorders. The FDA has actually approved some newer oral contraceptives for other indications besides contraception. For example, Yaz has been approved for the treatment of acne and premenstrual dysphoric disorder.

Dysmenorrhea, or painful periods, is especially prevalent among young women. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) reports that 90 percent of young women suffer from dysmenorrhea, and it is the main reason they miss school or work. When you look at adolescents, 82 percent of 15- to 19-year-olds who are using OCPs say they use them for non-contraceptive reasons. ACOG also reports that using birth control pills may offer protection against some cancers in women. More data will come from studies in the future.

It is definite that hormonal contraceptives, which include oral birth control pills, offer many benefits other than preventing pregnancy. They should be considered a part of women’s preventive health care.

If you’d like more information about contraceptives and their uses, contact Planned Parenthood, where a clinician can provide you with more information about birth control pills and other contraceptive choices.

Click here to check out other installments of “Let’s Talk Contraception”!

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