New research on birth control and blood clots reveals real risk factors
Through our work at Natural Womanhood, we have come to know numerous families who have been tragically affected by a blood clot caused by hormonal birth control. The statistics of the risks threatening the health and lives of women are no longer abstract numbers for us. When we speak of these dangers, we speak of friends who still mourn the loss of their loved ones: beautiful, vibrant young women whose faces we have come to know. We are working to spare as many other women as possible from these dangers by informing and warning them.
A recent study by Lucine Health Sciences shows that risk factors for blood clots caused by hormonal contraceptive have likely been under estimated. As we’ve seen in recent years, women are most certainly at risk. The study also reveals that medical professionals are not always screening thoroughly for factors that can cause blood clots, factors can lead to serious risk. Family members must be informed and proactively warn their loved ones.
How blood clots ruin lives
Our blood is designed to solidify naturally to prevent us from bleeding to death in the case of a wound. However, when we talk about blood clots, also called venous thromboembolism (VTE), we describe an abnormal coagulation of the blood in the veins or arteries. One common example, the Deep Vein Thrombosis or DVT is a form of blood clot that occurs in the leg or pelvis. A blood clot is dangerous because it obstructs your normal blood circulation, and can lead to three life threatening conditions:
- A heart attack, when the clot blocks the normal blood passage from the artery to the heart, which happens to over a million Americans every year. Heart attack was the cause of death for Annie Ammons, who died in 2009 at age 35 as a result of using the birth control pill Yaz.
- A stroke, which happens when the blood supply to parts of your brain is stopped or severely reduced, causing certain functions to stop almost immediately and some permanently. It happens to almost 800,000 Americans every year, and kills about 130,000 of them. Kerry Gretchen is one young woman who barely survived a stroke caused by hormonal contraceptives.
- A pulmonary embolism, when the blood clot travels to the artery in the lung. The blockage can eventually cause heart failure and death. The precise number of people affected is unknown but estimates say 900,000 with 60,000 to 100,000 dying very year. Erika Langhart, 24, Alex Rowan, 22, and Julia West Ross, 29, each died from a pulmonary embolism caused by birth control. Brittany Malone, 23, is another victim of birth control-caused blood clotting.
Blood clots affect mostly older people who are also more likely to be the victims of stroke, pulmonary embolisms and heart attacks. However, a study conducted by the Mayo clinic reports that “in patients younger than 55 years, the incidence of venous thromboembolism was higher in females. This observation may relate to differential exposure to clinical risk factors by sex and age (eg, pregnancy, postpartum state, or oral contraceptive use among younger women) [i].”
Long term consequences if you survive
Even when blood clots are not deadly, the consequences of blood clot related accident are life changing. A heart attack damages the heart’s muscle tissues leading to irregular heart rhythm, higher chance of heart failure, and higher risk of major depression. A stroke will often be followed by some impairment such as partial paralysis, memory loss or thinking difficulties or emotional problems. If it doesn’t kill you, a pulmonary embolism can lead to lung tissue damage or can cause low blood oxygen levels that can damage other organs in the body. Some blood clot conditions will require taking blood thinners for 3 to 6 months or more. A French organization dedicated to this victims of blood clots caused by contraceptives studied 739 cases of such accidents and found that in 46% of the cases, the effects were irreversible (29 death, 57 serious handicap, 256 life long negative effects).
The risk levels are higher for women on hormonal birth control
According to the National Blood Clot Alliance, “most birth control pills do increase a woman’s chance of developing a blood clot by about three to four times.” They report that 1 in 1,000 women on hormonal contraceptive will suffer from a blood clot. Certain types of hormonal contraceptives have higher risks than others, such as the patch, vaginal ring (Nuvaring)[ii], combination hormonal birth control pills that contain the progestin called desogestrel [iii], and those that contain the progestin called drospirenone (found in pills such as YAZ or Yasmin)[iv].
The risk factors are not what your doctor may think
The common risk assessment for women getting on the pill include:
- family history of blood clot
- coagulation disorders, such as factor V Leiden mutation
- being a smoker and over 35
- personal history of DVT, heart disease, hypertension
Generally, it is also accepted that if after a year of use, a woman has not experienced a clot, she’s safe.
However, a study conducted by Lucine Health Sciences seems to indicate that the medical system needs to seriously reconsider their approach of assessing such risks. They studied the medical background of 87 women who experienced a DVT because of hormonal contraceptives, and found that:
- 95% of them were not smoking at the time of the DVT, and 78% had never smoked
- 58% had no family history of blood clot, and 80% they did not have a known blood clot disorder
- 75% developed the blood clot after at least a year of using their contraceptive
What’s more, only 2% of all the women had been tested for a blood disorder, even when they had a known risk factor in the family.
The study conducted by the French organization in reference above confirms these finding, as out of the 739 cases they researched, 30% had none of the risks doctors usually look for, 73% didn’t smoke at all, and out of the 19% who had a coagulation disorder, 30% were not aware of it.
What we must do
More than anything, these studies show the importance of raising awareness among young women and couples about the dangers of hormonal birth control and not stop at commonly published risk factors. They are drugs that shouldn’t be used without serious considerations and thorough understanding of all the risks. It is even more important when we see that young women can now buy them without a prescription in some states: who will warn them? The cost of such an accident is too high to be ignored.
As parents, spouses, or friends, we have a duty to educate others:
- Let them know that the risks of blood clot from the pill are real (share this article and other websites in reference[v])
- Inform them about the effectiveness and benefits of the natural methods
At Natural Womanhood, we consider it part of our mission to warn women.
[i] Trends in the Incidence of Deep Vein Thrombosis and Pulmonary Embolism, A 25-Year Population-Based Study
Marc D. Silverstein, et Al. Arch Intern Med. 1998;158:585-593
[ii] Venous thrombosis in users of non-oral hormonal contraception: follow-up study, Denmark 2001-10 Øjvind Lidegaard et Al. BMJ 2012;344:e2990 doi: 10.1136/bmj.e2990 (Published 10 May 2012)
[iii] Abramowicz M (2010). Choice of contraceptives. Treatment Guidelines From The Medical Letter, 8(100): 89-96.
[iv] U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2011). FDA Drug Safety Communication: Updated information about the risk of blood clots in women taking birth control pills containing drospirenone. Available online: http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/DrugSafety/ucm299305.htm.
[v] For more resources about blood clots and contraceptives, read also: