IUDS: The good, the bad, the messy

By Samantha Lego
@samanthalego

“It’s just like a pap test,” I whispered to myself, mantra-like, as I stared at the ceiling, skirt hoisted up around my hips as my gynecologist prepared to insert my new, five year intrauterine device (IUD).

For some, it is just like a pap-test. There will be a slight, sharp pain and several minutes of minimal of cramping. Boom. It’s in, you’re out. No big deal. For others, the pain is excruciating.

You can guess what camp I fell in.

I pride myself on having a high pain tolerance, so I thought I’d be just fine. But, with my feet in the stirrups, speculum in place, she explained that she was then going to straighten out my cervix and measure my uterus.

What came next was a stab that was nothing but slight and very sharp as my insides felt like they were getting pushed out. I remembered my yoga instructor’s advice to practice my Pranayama breathing, but that went to hell as my gyno popped up from between my legs and told me that this next bit was going to hurt a little more.

“That wasn’t even fucking it?” My inside voice yelled. My outside voice joked, “I’m never having children.” To which she shoved the T-shaped device in, along with another hot dagger of uterine pain. “Well now you won’t for the next five years,” she cheerily replied. I stood up, feeling both nauseous and accomplished – yay for reproductive health! –  and then promptly fainted.
My IUD journey was off to a great start.

******

There are horror stories floating around the internet of unimaginable suffering from women who’ve had their IUDs dislodge or perforate. Myths about a lifetime of pain, infertility and bad sex which are enough to make a room full of women visibly cringe. So when my doctor broached the subject with me, I was very hesitant.

I had been off the pill for over a year and was fully embracing my light, irregular periods. I felt great and empowered and all of those warm fuzzy things about my natural cycle, especially after the studies emerging about the negative long term effects of birth control pills. Yet, as a 24-year-old, sexually active member of society, I knew that I couldn’t keep relying on condoms as my only method of avoiding pregnancy.

Our options for contraceptives have grown immensely. From diaphragms to nuvarings, implants, patches and pills, we have a variety to choose from. Out of all of these, IUDs are still the most effective kind of reversible, forgettable birth control.

They have a failure rate of less than one per cent, which when compared to a nine per cent failure rate of birth control and an 18 per cent failure rate in using condoms, seems like a no-brainer. As well, IUDs are the contraceptive measure of choice by most health professionals. 40 per cent of gynecologists use them, yet still only five per cent of Canadian women do.

This could be due to the misconceptions and archaic models of IUDs floating around. It could also be due to a lack of information on what exactly they are and how they work.

In Canada, there are two kinds of IUDs – copper (ParaGuard) and progesterone (Mirena). Both copper and hormonal options prevent pregnancy by altering how your man’s sperm cells move towards your egg.

Hormonal IUDs thicken cervical mucus which block and trap sperm in their tracks. Occasionally they’ll stop the process of ovulation as well. As preventative birth control, it’s extremely effective, with only 1/1000 women per year becoming pregnant. A ParaGuard is made with copper which deflects sperm, protecting your happily unfertilized egg and acting as an efficient emergency contraceptive as well. In a nutshell. IUDs are very good at what they do. Which is to stop you from becoming a babymama.

The downside is they are expensive. Without benefits, a copper IUD will set you back $75 and a hormonal about $400. But the upside is they last anywhere from five to 10 years, meaning you’ll save more money in the long run.

In perfect scenarios, they’re known to lighten periods, lessen cramps and act as the invisible, hassle-free birth control. Never fear, your IUD is here.

Before I start preaching the powers of these magical devices to the congregation, know that not everything is a walk in the park. Although only 5 per cent of women with a hormonal IUD will notice any side effects such as weight gain, mood changes or acne, there are some things you should be aware of.

******

After being escorted out of the doctor’s office, I experienced cramps like I had never before. My gyno said it would be similar to regular period cramps. Since I don’t get cramps (shoot me, right?) I had no idea if these were normal or worse. What I can tell you is that if those are what regular period cramps feel like, then I’m going to spend the rest of my life lobbying for menstruating women to be able to take sick days because, my god!
After about an hour of sweatpants and a hot pad, the flu-like symptoms subsided. What I was left with was about three days of rolling waves of cramps varying in severity and the lingering thought of whether I made a very bad decision.

According to research, it takes up to three months for your body to adjust to your new, little friend. Within that timeframe, expect to ruin all of your favourite underwear. Spotting happens on-and-off for up to several cycles. It’s enough to make you think longingly of those white shorts currently living in the back of your closet.

Nobody wants to talk about goo, especially in relation to your vagina, but let’s be real. You now are the proud owner of a foreign object attached to one of the most important systems in your body. Of course it’s going to freak out. Expect higher than normal levels of discharge alongside the spotting and cramps.

If that’s not bad enough, one day I sneezed and almost peed myself. It wasn’t until that moment where I realized my near constant urge to go. A quick Google search told me that I had uterine cancer. A more thorough look told me my IUD was placing added pressure on my bladder, much like during a pregnancy. As your body adjusts, you’ll pee less, but until then, be wary of sneezing and long car rides.
All of these fun details aside, what no one seems to mention is that the hardest adjustments to make were the psychological ones.

Yes, it hurt. Yes, spotting, peeing and discharge is annoying. What is worse is realizing that, unlike a pill which I could stop taking, or a nuvaring which I could take out, an IUD is up there for good. There is now a foreign object attached inside me and I can’t do anything about it without the help of a medical practitioner. It’s intimidating and invasive and still makes me feel queasy.

At times, I feel claustrophobic about my own vagina.

It took me more than two weeks to muster up the courage to try and find the string, during which the thought of sex made me clench up and shy away. Stories from friends of positions gone wrong lent to some deep-rooted anxiety. But, much like a new tattoo, the novelty wears off, your body adjusts and you remember why you were so gung-ho on it in the first place.

My IUD grants me total freedom and control over my body. At almost 100 per cent effectiveness with minimal hormonal side effects, it’s a forgettable and hassle-free method of birth control. It lessened the intensity of my period, is completely reversible at any time and provided me with a certain level of female-powered satisfaction.

I am woman, hear me – and my IUD – roar.

Everyone’s IUD experiences are different. This is just my candid recollection. I’ve spoken to several of my friends who also have IUDs. Their stories range from similar to completely different. It’s always good to check with your doctor about what preventative measures will work best for you. And remember: IUDs don’t protect against STIs.

 

Samantha Lego is a recent deportee falling back in love with her home country. She enjoys poking fun at Vancouver stereotypes while ignoring the fact that she is one. You can usually find her drinking beer on weeknights (for science!) and laughing obnoxiously at her own bad puns. Read more of her writing here: samanthalego.com