Welcome to The V, our weeklong series devoted to all things sex and reproductive health. This is a safe space free from "taboos," because there's no reason women should feel awkward talking about their bodies. That said, we'll be clearing up any misinformation on the subject, starting with this huge misnomer: The "V" in this case doesn't refer to the vagina, but the vulva, which is the anatomically correct term for external female genitalia (including the opening of the vagina). Stay tuned all week for need-to-know guides on birth control, tips for taking your orgasm to the next level, real-life stories about endometriosis, and everything in between.
Original Illustration by Lauren Johnstone
When I got my IUD in July, I did a lot of research beforehand. I discussed my options with my doctor ad nauseam. I googled everything, and I pored over countless articles covering the general basics and the nitty-gritty details. But nothing appeased my thirst for knowledge on the subject—not to mention my pre-procedure jitters—more than hearing about the real-life experiences of women who had actually gone through it.
In this respect, my situation was ideal—I had a lot of friends with IUDs who were more than willing to get into TMI territory with me, all so that I might feel better prepared. But even as I ultimately learned that no IUD experience is quite the same as the next, I couldn't help but imagine how much more nervous I would feel without the anecdotal frame of reference I built in the weeks leading up to my implantation. And with IUDs trending in a big way after the election, now seems as good a time as any to pay it forward.
Since the fate of free birth control is questionable under the incoming presidential administration, many women are now scrambling to get IUDs in a preemptive way to make sure they're covered through the upcoming years rather than taking a gamble on their reproductive health by playing wait-and-see. The rush is real: Planned Parenthood clinics across Massachusetts, for example, are reporting a spike at 16 times what the usual IUD demand is.
But whether you're part of the group booking appointments en masse or simply have a passing curiosity about what the procedure entails, again, hearing the stories of real women who've done it is invaluable to demystifying the experience—after you've versed yourself on the basics, of course. (Spoiler: It's not always pleasant, but ultimately, it's not a big deal.) Below, six women get real about what it's really like to have an IUD, from implantation to aftermath and beyond.
"I've had all these negative side effects. But I still prefer it to any other form of birth control I've tried."
"The funniest thing about the IUD is that I've had all these negative side effects but still prefer it to any other form of birth control I've tried. After nine years on the pill, I switched to the Mirena IUD over a year ago. I was always anxious about getting pregnant and wanted to try a form of birth control that didn't depend on me taking a pill at the same time every day. The insertion was really painful for me—it felt like sharp stabs in my lower abdomen. I had to have someone come to pick me up and stayed in bed for the rest of the day.
"I've had acne since puberty, but in the first six months with the IUD, I dealt with the worst breakouts I've ever had. I had big, painful cysts on my chin, and as soon as one would heal (which took a couple weeks), I'd get more. My periods, which have always been heavy but were manageable on the pill, went from about five days to 10 days or more. They're not heavy with the IUD, just long. I also started getting painful cramps and bloating so bad it hurts to wear pants.
"Thankfully, the acne eventually calmed down to the occasional noncystic breakout, but I still have awful periods. Most women find Mirena makes their periods lighter and shorter, but mine are so crazy I'd need a higher dose of hormones to keep them under control. I started using Erythromycin (a topical antibiotic) for my acne, which really helped. I also just started taking spironolactone, which helps with hormonal acne and can make your period lighter. I've only been taking it for a month, but my last period was a little shorter, so I'm hoping it will get better in the next few months.
"Both my GP and my ob-gyn have suggested I go back to the pill, but I'd rather keep the IUD. For me, the peace of mind is worth all the side effects."
"I suppose that my trade-off for a relatively easy insertion was a pretty rough recovery time."
"I'd actually never been on hormonal birth control before when I decided to get an IUD—the thought of putting hormones in my body always skeeved me out, and I used other methods of birth control for years. However, my hormones suddenly went haywire about a year ago: I gained a bunch of weight with little explanation, and my period suddenly went from being easy and nearly nonexistent to extremely painful and heavy; it was severely impacting my life, completely out of the blue. After waiting it out for several months, trying to alter my lifestyle to balance my hormones to no avail, thinking about it a lot, and having a few conversations with my doctor, she recommended that I try Mirena.
"It's been about five months since I got the IUD. I paid nothing—not even a co-pay—since it was all covered by insurance. Everyone had warned me about the insertion being potentially painful, but I was numbed, so I didn't feel much. For a couple of days after, I experienced some crazy cramping. I've read that it's comparable to early labor pain, but I'm not going to pretend I have any personal context for that!
"But I suppose that my trade-off for a relatively easy insertion was a pretty rough recovery time. My doctor says that it can take up to six months for things to regularize, and apparently not a moment sooner for my body. I've experienced near-constant bleeding and spotting, including after sex—not the most fun thing to explain when you're not in a relationship with someone. For one weeks-long rough patch, I was really crampy and swollen, and I was literally convinced that my body was rejecting the IUD. I made a beeline to my doctor, but she said that everything actually looked fine and that I'd just have to wait it out. (She also said that in 20 years of practice, she's seen IUDs fall out of two people—only two people, but like, what?)
"Fingers crossed, but as I approach the six-month mark, my symptoms and bleeding are finally subsiding, and the weight I gained while my hormones were going nuts pre-IUD has practically melted off. It's also obviously nice to have a peace of mind while dating. I know tons of other people with IUDs—some who experienced some of the same symptoms as me and others who didn't have to deal with anything at all. But I think I really did get some of the worst of it, and if I can still come out the other side thinking it's all worth it, I feel like anyone else can too."
"I had light spotting for about two weeks. And I haven't had pain or bleeding since."
"I wanted to go off the pill and found that the IUD appealed to me because of its consistent and slow release of hormones rather than the wham, hormones! I was dealing with.
"I've never had bad cramps since my implantation. I also had a miraculously pain-free experience while having it put in—just uncomfortable pressure for a second and very mild cramping for the rest of the day. Then it was light spotting for about two weeks, and I haven't had pain or bleeding since. (It's been almost eight months.)
"My only struggle has been with my skin. It wasn't horrible at first, but it has exploded with cystic acne and gone through bursts of being particularly bad. My ob-gyn has told me that this is due to being on the pill for a decade and that my body is overproducing testosterone. It seems like (fingers crossed!) it's starting to improve a little, but it's been very frustrating, and the natural remedies I've tried haven't really done much for it."
"The IUD dropped my cup size from a 34D to a 24C. I had to get all new bras."
"I went on the pill in 2011 during my sophomore year of college. It took months of trying out brands, paying attention to weight fluctuation, mood, and periods until I finally found my ideal pill. Finding my stride, I stuck with one brand for over four years. Despite my weird love for CVS, I found the monthly maintenance of getting the pack and ensuring the refill order hadn't expired to be nothing compared to the surprise breakthrough bleeding and ruined Hanky Panky pairs I was experiencing.
"Never really knowing another option, I perked up when a good friend shared she had just gotten an IUD. She told me she had no periods, no PMS (mine was heightened appetite and the ability to tear up at a commercial), and no pain. Huh? What? This exists?
"It turns out my sister, who had just gotten married, had also gotten an IUD. Equipped with these endorsements, I scheduled an appointment with my GP, who confirmed it could be as good as it sounded, and got it placed by my ob-gyn about a week later.
"In sum, my IUD has been 12 hours of pain for five years of bliss. I had been warned that some women experience extreme pain and cramps during the insertion and first 24 hours. But girl, if I have to endure 24 hours of pain for five years of no periods, sign me up. The entire insertion process took about two minutes (I got the Mirena, FWIW), and the pain was probably for less than 30 seconds. I asked that he walk me through everything he was about to do and asked the nurse to squeeze my hand (I'm a wimp—I know), and then it was over! After leaving the office, I went right back to work.
"I did feel a little foggy, and then the cramps set in—I spent the night on the couch. But a full 12 hours later, the pain had subsided, and I was entering the bliss that would be life with an IUD. Do not get an IUD for the weight loss, but it's worth noting that I lost five pounds. My weight had not fluctuated more than a pound up or down since freshman year of high school. The IUD dropped my cup size from a 34D to a 34C. I had to get all-new bras. My boyfriend also repeatedly pointed out that I no longer had a butt. RIP.
"In my one-month checkup with my ob-gyn, he did the ultrasound, and everything was normal. I inquired about my weight and curve loss, and he said he had never heard of it before. I have to assume my birth control had made me gain weight and I never realized it, as my boobs came in a year before I went on the pill. The mystery remains—but long story short, the IUD is the best. I experienced no (noticeable) mood swings; I have not had any bleeding; I don't have to deal with the daily pill alarm and the monthly trip to CVS. I only miss my boobs."
"I made the mistake of doing this on my lunch break and thinking I'd go back to the office afterward."
"Getting an IUD was the best decision of my reproductive life. I had been on Yaz for four and a half years but got off the pill because it was the main culprit for my melasma, and because I wasn't sexually active, I wanted to rid myself of taking unnecessary pills. Once I started dating my now long-term boyfriend, I made an appointment with my ob-gyn, who told me that because of my melasma, I'd need a low-hormone option, and she highly recommended an IUD. I went with the five-year Mirena because you can remove it at any time, and I'm not planning to have a family anytime soon.
"I had my cervix scraped the same week I received my IUD, and the doctor told me I'd be fine during the process because they were very similar. The insertion was extremely uncomfortable—maybe this is TMI, but it felt similar to having to use the restroom but not being able to go. However, once I was done, I felt fine—at first, at least.
"The next 48 hours had me writhing in pain. I made the mistake of doing this on my lunch break and thinking I'd go back to the office afterward. I ended up puking on the side of the road, went back to work, grabbed my belongings, and went home. I took as many Aleve as I could get away with and laid in bed with what felt like the worst cramps I've had in my life. After 48 hours, my cramps subsided, but I would still get little random pings of pain throughout the next three months. I was told I'd have nonexistent periods, but initially, I was bleeding more frequently. I'd say by month four, everything was sorted out.
"I love my IUD and the convenience of it all, and I love having the peace of mind too. I do have a little bit of melasma now because the Mirena isn't hormone-free, but not taking a pill and not worrying about my birth control, in general, has taken away a major stressor in my life. I will say, though, there is one thing they don't warn you about: I have never had feminine odor in my life, and with the IUD, my scent is less than appealing. It can be embarrassing at times. I've talked to my doctor about it, who says it's normal, and after doing research, it seems common, but many women have had it removed for this reason alone. It's not bad enough to make me remove it, but it is an unexpected side effect."
"The IUD is the equivalent of automating your birth control."
"I got an IUD about nine months ago, mainly because I was just so terrible at taking my pill every day, let alone on time. (In hindsight, I'm surprised I never got pregnant during the five-plus years I was taking them.) I'd heard that it's extremely painful to get it inserted, but my doctor gave me a shot of local anesthetic right before, and I didn't feel a thing.
"I hoped the IUD would make my period go away, but that hasn't happened. If anything, it's actually made my period more irregular. Granted, I haven't been keeping super-close track, but I don't really know when it's going to come over the course of a month or how many days it will last. However, the pros far outweigh the cons for me. The fact that I literally don't have to think twice about contraception is the dream. I work in tech PR in the Bay Area, and all I hear about are automation tools that take the manual labor out of tedious tasks. The IUD is the equivalent of automating your birth control. It's out of my hands now (and I mean that in the best way)! I love it."
Ed. note: All names have been changed.
This story was originally published on November 15, 2016, and since been updated.