More than 80 percent of U.S. women will use hormonal contraception sometime during their reproductive years, yet many women are unaware of the non-contraceptive benefits of using this type of birth control. In general, combination hormonal contraceptives consist of a progestin (for its contraceptive effects) and a synthetic estrogen (to stabilize the endometrium and reduce unwanted spotting).
The following is a list of the most common non-contraceptive benefits of birth control. Please keep in mind that each woman may react differently to specific birth control methods, so this information is meant to be a general overview. Also, it is important to note that the main reason to use hormonal contraception is for birth control (to prevent an unintended pregnancy) — potential non-contraceptive benefits of birth control can be considered when determining which hormonal method may be best suited for you.
Dysmenorrhea is pain resulting from intense uterine contractions during menstruation triggered by the release of prostaglandin. The pain is severe enough to limit a woman’s daily activities during that time. Dysmenorrhea is the most commonly reported menstrual disorder, affecting up to 90 percent of young women. Combination birth control pills, the NuvaRing, Implanon, Mirena IUD, and the Ortho Evra Patch have all shown some ability to diminish dysmenorrheal pain.
PMS and PMDD
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) refers to a wide range of physical or emotional symptoms that typically occur about five to 11 days before a woman starts her monthly menstrual cycle. The symptoms usually stop when menstruation begins, or shortly thereafter and is estimated to affect up to 75 percent of women during their childbearing years.
Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a severe form of PMS, is a condition that adversely affects the psychological well-being and social interactions of some 3-5 percent of women of reproductive age. PMDD is marked by severe depression symptoms, irritability, and tension before menstruation; hormone changes that occur during a woman’s menstrual cycle appear to play a role in the occurrence of PMDD. Hormonal birth control methods, including extended cycle pills, have been shown to offer some relief.
Acne and Hirsutism
Acne, most commonly occurring on the face or shoulders, is a skin condition that causes whiteheads, blackheads, and inflamed red lesions (papules, pustules, and cysts) to form. Hirsutism is excessive male-pattern hair growth in certain areas of a woman’s face and bodies such as the mustache and beard area. Androgens, the dominant sex hormones in men, can be responsible for these conditions. Women normally have low levels of androgens, but abnormally high levels of androgens can lead to excess hair growth or acne. Given that hormonal contraception can reduce the levels of free androgen in your system, certain combination OCs can be very effective in treating these conditions.
Sixty percent of women with migraines link their attacks to menstruation. Documented menstrual migraine occurs in 8–14 percent of women. Extended cycle pills (like Seasonique or Lybrel) and continuous hormonal contraception (including Depo Provera) can decrease hormonal fluctuations thought to trigger certain migraine attacks and bring some relief to certain migraine sufferers.
Irregular Menstrual Cycles
Many women suffer from irregularities with their menstrual cycles. Some women become anxious over not knowing when their period will start. Menstrual cycles can become unpredictable due to infrequent, irregular or no ovulation patterns. Combination hormonal contraceptives can provide the benefit of helping you regulate your monthly cycle or skip periods altogether.
Endometriosis is a condition in which the tissue that normally lines the inside of the uterus (the endometrium) grows in other areas of the body. It causes pain, irregular bleeding, and possible infertility. Endometriosis is a common problem and probably begins about the time that regular menstruation begins. Depo Provera and Depo-subQ Provera 104 injections have been FDA-approved to help treat the pain associated with endometriosis. Other hormonal contraceptives may be helpful as well.
Menorrhagia is excessive menstrual bleeding and can lead to iron deficiency anemia if left untreated. It has been estimated to occur in about 10 percent of women of reproductive age, although as many as 30 percent of women will seek treatment for this condition. Contraceptives that reduce overall bleeding episodes may be especially helpful in the management of menorrhagia. These birth control methods can be a reversible treatment (with less serious side effects) for menorrhagia as the alternative treatment is endometrial ablation (a surgical procedure) that leads to sterilization.
Endometrial cancer is cancer that starts in the endometrium, the lining of the uterus. Most cases of endometrial cancer occur between the ages of 60 and 70 years, but some cases can occur before age 40. According to the National Cancer Institute, uterine cancer is the most common type of gynecologic cancer, and endometrial cancer accounts for about 90 percent of all uterine cancers. In the United States, approximately 37,000 new cases of uterine cancer are diagnosed and about 6,000 women die from this disease each year. Combination birth control pills, Mirena and Depo Provera have been clinically shown to offer protective effects against endometrial cancer.
Ovarian cancer is cancer that starts in the ovaries. It is the fifth most common cancer among women, and it causes more deaths than any other type of female reproductive cancer. It is estimated that approximately 30,000 new cases of ovarian cancer will be diagnosed each year, with 15,000 women dying from this disease. Reanalysis of worldwide data on combined OCs and ovarian cancer has demonstrated that every use of combined birth control pills decreases the risk of ovarian cancer. Plus, the longer the duration of combined OC use, the greater the risk reduction.
Colon, or colorectal, cancer is cancer that starts in the large intestine (colon) or the rectum (end of the colon). According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths in the United States and is the fourth most common cancer in men and women. Research shows that using oral contraception (“the pill”) can reduce your risk of developing colorectal cancer.
Bone Mineral Density
Bone mineral density (BMD) is a measure of bone density, reflecting the strength of bones as represented by calcium content. Bone density is the amount of bone tissue in a certain volume of bone. BMD can be an indirect indicator of osteoporosis and fracture risk. Whereas it appears that combination birth control pills may be associated with an increased bone density among women in the later reproductive years, research on other combination hormonal methods is limited. The use of Depo Provera and Implanon may actually decrease BMD. In fact, Depo Provera contains an FDA black box warning that Depo Provera use may lead to significant bone mineral density loss.