Playing Fast and Loose with the Numbers: Hormonal Contraception Carries Real Risks
For too long, the pharmaceutical industry and most likely your doctor, have been telling you what they want you to know about birth control drugs; instead of educating you with the information that you need to know to help you choose the birth control method that works best for you.
The communication of risk and benefit is a core component of health care counseling and should begin with the most fundamental principles of medicine: “First, do no harm.” I am not sure that is what is happening now. It didn’t with our daughter and many of the women and families we have met who have suffered similar tragedies.
What women really need to know is how a particular contraceptive drug or method compares to other types of contraception in terms of safety and effectiveness. In more personal terms, you need to know what the chances are that a particular contraceptive formulation or device will adversely affect your health. What I have learned since my daughter’s death is that this information is not easy to come by. In fact, it either doesn’t exist entirely or the manner in which it is presented is so convoluted that it is indecipherable and utterly useless.
The terms used by pharmaceutical companies as well as some leading contraception experts to describe these risks are either gross simplifications of the actual risk to life, or are enveloped in complex statistical and/or medical jargon that the lay person and even the physicians prescribing these meds cannot understand.
Here is what I mean. Below is a list of the most common half-truths regarding hormonal contraceptives and the risk for deadly blood clots.
Half-truth # 1: Blood Clots with Combined Hormonal Contraceptives are Rare
The increased risk of developing a dangerous blood clot when using combined hormonal contraceptives (CHCs) is a well-recognized, serious and potentially fatal adverse event associated with these medicines. A recent study published in the British Medical Journal (abstract) says there are even higher rates of blood clots than previously thought see Fresh Evidence Confirms Links between Newer Contraceptive Pills and Higher Risk of Venous Thromboembolism. Unfortunately, most patients are unaware of this potential risk and if they are aware, they have no idea that a blood clot “cardiovascular event” can lead to their death. More studies can be found here on Birth Control Safety. Any time a drug is prescribed that is proven to cause death, even if it is associated with a small percentage of the users, the provider is responsible for explaining the risks factually, and in terms a lay person can understand. Consider these data:
- On average, 307 women die in the U.S. every year due to a pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lung) as a direct result of the use of the pill, patch or ring – a combined hormonal contraceptive.
- Up to 2,600 women in the U.S. will develop a pulmonary embolism (blood clots in the Lung) as a result of the pill, patch or ring. Pulmonary emboli are potentially catastrophic and can lead to death.
- Up to 7,700 non-fatal cases of deadly blood clots in the U.S. occur each year, due to the effects of the pill, patch or ring.
If you are like most doctors and all patients, you will be shocked to learn how many women are harmed annually by hormonal contraceptives.
For a full report, see Birth Control Safety. This report compares the estimated impact of blood clots across 2nd, 3rd and 4th Generation Combination Hormonal Contraceptives.
Unfortunately, most doctors leave their patients believing that combined hormonal contraceptives (the pill, patch and ring) are safe. As you can see from the data stated above, these drugs are safe for some people and very dangerous for others.
Half-truth #2: Only Smokers and Women Over 35 are at Risk for Blood Clots
The reality is that the estrogenic effects of combine hormonal contraceptives increase the risk of a potentially life threatening blood clot (venous thromoboembolism or VTE) by between 400% – 700% for ALL women at any age including those that don’t smoke and those that do smoke. (Comparing Annual VTE Impact across 2nd-4th Generation CHC’s in the U.S. 2013). The risk of smoking increases that risk by 40% compared with non-smokers . That means, the increased risk of blood clots effects all users by 400-700% and the risk associated with smokers and for women over the age of 35 is even higher. This form of warning is misleading as many who read this think, “I don’t smoke and I’m under the age of 35, so this cardiovascular risk doesn’t apply to me. I’m safe to use it.” Even worse, this false sense of security is proven to mask the early warning signals of a potentially deadly blood clot.
The following is included as a “black box” warning in the most recent version (2013) of the NuvaRing patient information and reads as follows:
“Who should not use the NuvaRing?” Cigarette smoking increases the risk of serious cardiovascular side effects when you use combination oral contraceptives. This risk increases even more if you are over age 35 and if you smoke 15 or more cigarettes a day. Women who use combination hormonal contraceptives, including NuvaRing®, are strongly advised not to smoke.”
This statement infers that if you are a non-smoker and under the age of 35, that you should be able to safely use the NuvaRing. It also infers that if you are a smoker, even though you need to be concerned, you don’t need to be too concerned unless you smoke 15 cigarettes a day AND are over 35. This is misleading; intentionally misleading, I think.
In the same 2013 NuvaRing package insert, under the heading “What is the most important information I should know about the NuvaRing? Comes the answer:
“Do not use the NuvaRing if you smoke cigarettes AND are over 35 years of age. Smoking increases your risk of serious cardiovascular side effects (heart and blood vessel problems) from combination hormonal contraceptives (CHC’s), Including death from heart attack, blood clots or stroke. The risk increases with age and the number of cigarettes you smoke.”
Again, I think this statement falsely misleads women who do not smoke about their risks for blood clots. A more appropriate warning label might say something like this:
The estrogenic effects of combined hormonal contraceptives increase the risk of potentially life threatening blood clots by between 400% – 700%.
Hormonal Contraceptive Risk Counseling Misses Real Risks
Below are three videos that exemplify the lack of appreciation physician give to the real risks of blood clots with hormonal contraceptives. These are videos used to train physicians, nurses, pharmacists and other healthcare practitioners.
The Contraceptive Counseling Training Video below is a perfect example of how doctors and nurses are being taught to promote the effectiveness and safety of the pill, patch and ring without counseling women on the fact that these drugs to cause great harm, even death to some users.
Contraceptive Counseling Training Video
I find it very interesting that time is taken to review the side effects of spotting, bloating, nausea and breast tenderness, but the discussion of the dangerous side effects like blood clots, strokes, heart attacks which can lead to death don’t even come up. This has to change. Given the reoccurring annual loss of life attributed to these drugs, the true risks and early wanting signals of a dangerous blood clot need to be reviewed and thoroughly understood.
This next video is a great example of a typical visit with a nurse practitioner can unfold with zero safety information being shared relative to the increased risk of blood clots. Even worse, the question is asked “do you smoke at all,” and when the patient says I used to smoke and the nurse responds with the doctor’s advised you that you shouldn’t smoke while using the pill, the patient responds with yes. This is a great example of how the pharmaceutical companies have brainwashed doctors and nurses to highlight the risks associated with smoking, which leave a non-smoking patient to believe they are not at all exposed to any increased risk of developing a potentially catastrophic blood clot.
Brenda Oral Contraceptive Pill Counseling
In this final video, a patient shares that she smokes 10-15 cigarettes a day and the recommendation of the doctor/nurse is as follows “I’ve reviewed your family history and is it quite safe for you to take the pill. What I suggest is that you take the combined oral contraceptive pill. This is an example of the clinical issues that are putting our loved ones and friends’ lives at risk. Given that the increased risk of blood clots with CHC’s is well recognized, serious and potentially fatal, this practice of uninformed counseling is dangerous and needs to change before more women are killed.
A Contraception Consultation in Pharmacy
In each of these practitioner training videos, the real risks for blood clots associated with hormonal contraceptives is minimized. Women are not given the data needed to make informed decisions. As a result, when these risks turn to reality, they often go unrecognized. There are hundreds of stories of young women that were perfectly healthy and didn’t smoke that died suddenly from massive blood clots linked to the pill, patch and the ring. Birth Control Safety: Women’s Stories.
Half-truth # 3: All Hormonal Birth Control Methods are Equally Safe
Evidence confirms that newer contraceptive drugs have a higher risk of blood clots. In fact, the 3rd and 4th generation contraceptives (Yasmin, Yaz, Ocella, NuvaRing etc.) increase the overall risk by an additional 200% – 300%, above and beyond the risk for blood clots associated with earlier formulations. I think women should know this before choosing a method of contraception. I think physicians should make this information very clear to their patients. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is happening. Most patients and physicians alike do not understand the different risk profiles that each formulation of hormonal contraceptive carries. Prescribers especially should be aware and consider how the risk of blood clot with a particular combined hormonal contraceptives compares with other methods (see table 1) and help their patients make informed decisions. Currently available data provides compelling evidence that both 3rd and 4th Generation CHCs have higher risk of venous thromboembolism (see table 1) than the older 2nd Generation drugs, despite attempts to develop safer contraceptives for women.
Table 1. Risk for Blood Clots with Different Hormonal Contraceptives
Half-truth # 4: Blood Clots are more Common During Pregnancy and Postpartum
Pharmaceutical companies maintain the enormous market for hormonal contraceptives by telling doctor’s and women that it’s safer to use the pill, patch or ring than it is to get pregnant. This is a false comparison and here’s why. These dangers are of an unnatural substance interfering with body processes. Pregnancy however is a natural process, which the body is prepared to deal with. The pill, patch or eing actually introduce cardiovascular disease (blood clot) into your body (Confessions of a Medical Heretic, p29). Women who have already made the decision to use contraception have taken pregnancy off the table, so the real question is, how does the pill, patch and the ring compare to other forms of contraception in terms of both safety and effectiveness?
Women in the U.S. have on average of 2 births in their lifetime. The risk of these two period of life, pregnancy and postpartum periods, that total 30 months of time, cannot be compared to the risk that a women experiences while using a combined hormonal contraceptive continuous over the course of their child bearing years which may be as long as 25 years. This type of comparison (that the risk of a blood clot or other complication is many times greater during pregnancy), defies both logic and science. Comparisons of contraceptives should be between the various methods of birth control as this helps women make the most informed decision of which method of birth control works best for them. They have already made the decision to control birth (not get pregnant), so there is no need to compare these drugs to pregnancy.
Pregnant women often pay more attention to their bodies because they are concerned about their own health and the health and safety of their unborn child. Medical professionals more closely monitor pregnant women than hormonal contraceptive users. The identification of a venous thromboembolism is more likely to occur in a pregnant woman, as she has more frequent contact with the medical community. When a healthy woman is prescribed birth control, there is a “set it and forget it” treatment plan where the health provider may say, “Call me if you have any problems and come back in a year.”
This false comparison of risk of VTE in pregnancy versus the pill, patch and ring creates a false sense of safety with hormonal contraceptives compared to pregnancy. It minimizes the possibility that something terrible could happen while using a combined hormonal contraceptive. This is like warning someone to watch out for the charging elephant but failing to pay attention to the charging buffalo. Yes, an elephant’s foot may be bigger and heavier, but if a buffalo charges you will still have a problem.
The oversimplified and inappropriate presentation of the risk during pregnancy minimizes the increase rate of risk between 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation combined hormonal contraceptives. Newer is not better. In fact, the newer 3rd and 4th generation drugs increase the life threatening risk of blood clots and bring no incremental benefits outside of expanded choice.
Half-truth # 5: Double a Rare Event is Still a Rare Event
Healthcare professionals need to stop using that phrase “Double a rare event is still a rare event” when it comes to women’s lives. This is a statistical view of the mathematics that make up traditional risk management practices that minimizes the very risk of serious side effects, including fatality, associated with these medications. Even if these side effects develop in a small percentage of the users, the patient needs to understand these risks and it is the provider that is responsible for explaining the risks factually and in context that patients can comprehend.
In reality, if we double the rate of venous thromboembolism and pulmonary emboli, the number of related deaths grows from an average of 307 to 614 per year. The number of women impacted by the most dangerous type of blood clot, a pulmonary embolism, which has a 12% mortality rate, grows from an average of 2,560 to 5,120 women annually. Pulmonary embolism survivors are subject to additional treatment, which typically includes anticoagulant medications (blood thinners) and varies in type of treatment and duration based on severity. Some women need immediate emergency treatment, others can be treated as an outpatient. Patients are typically treated for 3-12 months, but some must remain on blood thinners for extended period of time.
As you can imagine, this dismissive, although witty, statement does not attune the health care community to pay serious attention to the possibility that real people will die or be permanently injured. Furthermore, when you multiply a small number by a large number of users the impact of these “rare events” equates to many more deaths than anyone realizes. Rare events DO happen and they happen to real human beings! It is also an insult to the thousands of women (and their families) who have been injured or died particularly when there are much safer and more effective alternatives available
The Bottom Line: Hormonal Contraceptives Carry Significant Risks
FACT – Combination hormonal contraceptives dramatically increase the risk of dangerous blood clots.
FACT – Blood clots (acute thrombotic events) are known to lead to sudden death or lifelong problems.
FACT – Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lungs) are the most dangerous form of thromboembolism which has a 12% mortality rate.
FACT – 20%-25% of pulmonary embolism related deaths present as sudden death (No Warning) .
FACT – A woman is 20 times more likely to become pregnant if she uses birth control pills, a patch or a ring than if she uses an IUD or an implant .
- Jick S, Fresh evidence confirms links between newer contraceptive pills and higher risk of venous Thromboembolism BMJ 2015;350:h2422 doi: 10.1136/bmj.h2422 (Published 26 May 2015).
- Comparing Annual VTE Impact across 2nd-4th Generation CHC’s in the U.S. 2013 – Birthcontrolsafety.org).
- Goldhaber S, The Clot Blog of Medscape.com, VTE risk in women who smoke; http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/801689 last sourced 9-15-2015.
- Mendelsohn S, Confessions of a Medical Heretic, Chapter 2, page 28.
- Beckman M, Hooper WC, Critchley S, Ortel T. Venous thromboembolism: a public health concern. Am J Prev Med. 2010;38(4 Suppl):S495-501.
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Frequently Asked Questions FAQ#184 Contraception: Long-Acting Reversible Contraception (LARC): IUD & Implant.