Once Again, Scientists Are Discovering New Risks Of The Contraceptive Pill Too Late

The findings of one new study prove women's health has been sidelined for decades, writes Alice Hall.

Woman taking pill

by Alice Hall |
Updated on

If you are one of the many women in England who takes the contraceptive pill, then you might be familiar with some of the potential side effects: mood changes, weight gain and headaches, to name a few. It's true that many women take the pill throughout their life without experiencing any of these side-effects at all, but scientists are now delving deeper into how the pill affects our bodies - and making revelations many might've hoped they'd known sooner.

A new study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has found that taking common painkillers, such as Ibuprofen, while on the contraceptive pill may lead to a small increased risk of blood clots. The Danish study tracked diagnoses of venous thromboembolism (blood clots) among two million women aged 15 to 49 living in Denmark between 1996 and 2017 with no history of blood clots, cancer, hysterectomy or fertility treatment. Hormonal contraception was divided into high, medium and low risk, according to their links with clots in previous studies.

The use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) painkillers alone saw an extra four women in every 100,000 suffer a blood clot - a link that has been previously established. But researchers found that women also taking high-risk hormonal contraceptives - which includes pills containing 50 mg of oestrogen and third or fourth generation progestins, such as desogestrel - saw the rate rise to 23 in 100,000. Meanwhile, they found that women on medium-risk contraceptives, which includes all other combined oral contraceptives - the most commonly prescribed in the UK - saw the rate rise to 11 in 100,000.

While this sounds alarming, it's important to keep these findings in perspective. Researchers say that, while the risk is low, women should be informed of these links, stating 'women needing both hormonal contraception and regular use of NSAIDs should be advised accordingly.'

Dr Channa Jayasena, clinical senior lecturer and consultant in reproductive endocrinology and andrology at Imperial College London, said 'Painkillers and the pill (like all drugs) can occasionally cause serious side effects. But I don’t think this study alone should put off women taking either the pill, painkillers, or both if needed,' adding 'the most important message should be for all women to reduce blood clot risk by smoking cessation and weight loss.'

But it begs the question: if the pill has been around since the sixties, why are we only discovering some of these risks now? One Twitter user, on reading the new findings, wrote 'I’m flabbergasted at this GMA report on birth control and pain killers because when I was on the pill and still having problems doctors CONSTANTLY told me to just take ibuprofen for a week to 10 days straight.'

The pill became a talking point earlier this year, when Davina McCall investigated different contraceptive methods in her documentary Davina McCall's Pill Revolution. 'As young women, we're just chucked on the pill and expected to get on with it,' she said. And for many of us, this rings true. Many of my friends have popped the pill at some point in their lives, for everything from painful periods to acne and contraception.

But over the past few years, research has linked the pill to an increased risk of suicide, depression and even the size of the hypothalamus - the area in our brain that produces hormones which play a significant factor in our mood, appetite, sex drive and sleep. Earlier this year, a study by the University of Oxford found for the first time that the progestogen-only pill carries the same risk of breast cancer as the traditional combined pill. All forms of hormonal contraception, including the pill, the implant or an intrauterine device (IUD or coil), were found to increase the risk of breast cancer by between 23 and 32 per cent, reported The Times.

Although these studies sound worrying, experts suggest the benefits of taking the contraceptives may outweigh the risk of taking the pill. Cancer Research points out that, while the contraceptive pill slightly increases the risk of breast cancer, it decreases the risk of ovarian cancer and womb cancer.

What is true is that women are growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of research into reproductive health, from endometriosis to menopause. A 2014 report found that less than 2.5% of publicly funded researchis dedicated solely to reproductive health, despite the fact that one in three women in the UK will suffer from a reproductive or gynaecological health problem.

While the invention of the pill was heralded as an emblem of women's freedom, now it has seemingly come to represent the opposite. One friend tells me that she's too scared to stop taking the pill, as last time she tried to come off it her hair started falling out in clumps - a side-effect she wasn't warned about by her doctor. Others are breaking up with their pills to use hormone-free forms of contraception, such as period tracking apps, which come with their own risks.

There is some good news. Last year, the UK government announced a £25 million investment in 'women's health hubs' as part of their strategy to address the gender health gap in England. In practice, this means women in the UK will have access to essential services for menstrual problems, contraception, pelvic pain and menopause care.

Meanwhile, there has (finally) been a breakthrough in the development of a male contraceptive pill, which has shown to be 99% effective in preventing pregnancy in mice, with no observed side effects. But even this highlights an obvious gender inequality: why is a pill free from side-effects being made available for men when one doesn't exist for women? This goes without mentioning how long it took for scientists to actually start researching one.

So while science is thankfully edging closer to a more equal playing field when it comes to contraception, there's still a long way to go until women have the knowledge they need to make informed decisions around their bodies. It's always worth discussing any concerns you have about the pill with your GP or a sexual health service.

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