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NuvaRing Birth Control Linked to Elevated Risk of Blood Clots, Pulmonary Embolism

July 3, 2012

The Guttmacher Institute (a non-partisan reproductive health think tank) conducted a survey from 2006 — 2010 in an attempt to determine how many American women have used birth control at some point in their lives. Birth control advocates trumpeted their findings throughout the media: 99 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 44 who have had sex have used some form of birth control. About 63 percent of these women use nonpermanent methods like the pill, patch, IUD, condoms and the vaginal ring. This last product, however, has been under fire lately for potentially deadly side effects.

The NuvaRing is a device that women insert and wear for a period of three weeks, during which time it slowly releases hormones into the bloodstream. It has proven massively popular: According to MSN Health, 5.5 million prescriptions were filled in 2010, generating nearly $560 million in revenue for Merck, its manufacturer. But there have also been many health scares linked with NuvaRing, and a study just published in the British Medical Journal corroborates this. Its conclusion reads, “Women who use transdermal patches or vaginal rings for contraception have a 7.9 and 6.5 times increased risk of confirmed venous thrombosis [a blood clot that forms within a blood vessel] compared with non-users of hormonal contraception of the same age.”

It is often the case, especially with superficial venous thrombosis, that blood clots are slightly uncomfortable and painful, but that they often do not carry any weightier consequences. The real danger comes when part of the clot (known as an embolism) breaks off and is transported to the heart, lungs or brain. If the embolism becomes stuck in the lungs, pressure builds in the heart in a condition that is called a pulmonary embolism. Symptoms can be temporary, like difficult, painful breathing or heart palpitations, but they can also lead to a rapid heartbeat, low blood pressure and even sudden death.

Since its introduction in 2001, the FDA has received nearly 1,000 complaints about blood clots that may have been caused by the ring, and some individual consumers have filed defective drug lawsuits against the manufacturer. Moreover, about 700 of these women are currently involved in a class action lawsuit against Merck, claiming they did not provide adequate warnings about the dangers of their product to consumers.

Consumer safety advocates point to the presence of a hormone called desogestrel, which has been present in all third- and fourth-generations of birth control (the NuvaRing is counted as a third-generation device). The watchdog group Public Citizen even petitioned the FDA in 2007 asking them to ban all birth control containing desogestrel, preferring the time-tested second-generation of birth control that has proven to be just as effective without the inclusion of this dangerous hormone.

As always, you should consult with your doctor, especially if you are already at an elevated3 risk of pulmonary embolism, like being over 35, obese, a smoker or if you have high blood pressure. Establish what the best birth control option is for you after weighing all of the possibilities.

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