The Dangerous Side of Birth Control

When my doctor agreed to see me immediately without an appointment, I should have known something was wrong.
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After overcoming something life-threatening, I'm constantly in fear something can and will go wrong again. Every time I feel a twinge in my leg, I get scared. Every time I feel a shortness of breath, my heart races.

I started taking birth control pills in January 2011. By May of that year, my doctor discovered that a blood clot had developed in my right leg and spread to my lungs.

The most common type of clot is a deep vein thrombosis, a clot in a vein usually in the leg. It becomes fatal when it spreads to other parts of the body such as the lungs, a condition known as a pulmonary embolism.

The pain in my hip, the swelling of my entire right leg and the breathing difficulty I experienced should've scared me enough to check it out. But it wasn't until my mother dragged me into the doctor four months later that I learned something was really wrong.

"It's just some pain in my hip," I told the nurse. "I probably just pulled a muscle or something."

When my doctor agreed to see me immediately without an appointment, I should have known it was a bigger deal. The way nurse after nurse came in to talk to me should have tipped me off that I had cause for concern.

But why would I worry? I had been perfectly healthy for 19 years. With the exception of one broken bone and a case of strep throat, sickness and injury were not a part of my past. I had no reason to worry because I had no idea what kind of damage birth control could cause.

The clot took only four months to develop. Recovery was a seven-month process of ER trips, doctor visits three to four times a week and a few blood-thinning medications consisting of shots injected in my abdomen and a daily pill. At this time, I had just returned from school for summer break and was working two jobs and an internship. Going to see the doctor continually for blood tests was a challenge.

Through my research on the topic, I learned that I was not alone. I met two other women with similar stories. Kaitlin Schroeder, 29, from Boulder, Colorado, developed a portal vein thrombosis (the vein that carries blood from the stomach to the liver) as a result of the Nuva Ring, a flexible ring inserted once a month, when she was 22. Jaimie Kuchar, 22, from St. Cloud, Minnesota, also had a DVT in her leg from a three-month estrogen pill, Gilessa. Talking with other women who shared the same experience really sparked my interest in the dangers of birth control.

Studies show that newer birth control pills containing drospirenone, a synthetic version of the female hormone, progesterone, present a higher risk of blood clots than previous forms. According to an FDA report from Oct. 27, 2011, 10 in 10,000 women on the newer drugs will form a blood clot; with the older drugs, the risk is 7 in 10,000.

A more recent FDA report from April 10, 2012 warns of the increased risk for blood clots from birth control pills containing drospirenone. Drospirenone is shown in some epidemiologic studies to have a tripled increased risk for blood clots, even though other studies show no increased chance. Birth control pills with this hormone include but are not limited to Yasmin, Ocella, Yaz and Zarah.

Before prescribing birth control, doctors inform patients of the potential risks including minor side effects like cramping and irregular menstruation, as well as more serious ones like blood clots. I was aware of these when I started using the Pill, but with the chances seeming so unlikely that it would happen to me, I didn't give it a second thought.

Jaimie, Kaitlin and I are lucky to have caught ours early enough. About half of people who have blood clots show no symptoms, making it much harder to diagnose, and therefore, possibly fatal. Even those who survive might have life-long health problems. Kaitlin must take blood thinners indefinitely. Jaimie suffered from a blood infection. I became severely anemic and had to go to the ER, where they considered giving me a blood transfusion.

After my blood clot was resolved, I tried the Depo-Provera three-month shot because it contains a different hormone than the pill. I didn't suffer from any physical problems, but I couldn't handle the paranoia and stopped the shot after only three injections.

As daunting as the paranoia can be, I wasn't concerned enough at the beginning. I'm fortunate that my parents forced me to go to the doctor when I thought I had just pulled a muscle.

I can already imagine myself as a mother in the future, arguing with my teenage daughter who wants to use birth control. I know it has its benefits, which is why I tried another form, and it has worked out fine for all my friends. Even my mother was on birth control for years. Birth control has helped lots of women in many ways. But looking back at my hospital trips, ER visits, worried phone calls from my mother and the simple struggle of walking up the stairs, I will always be more cautious and remain educated about the possible dangers of birth control.

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