Update on contraceptive options: A case-based discussion

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ABSTRACTAs health care providers, we must engage our female patients in a dialogue about their contraceptive and fertility decisions. Empowering and educating our patients about their bodies’ hormones, the menstrual cycle, and the risk of unintended pregnancy are central to effective contraceptive counseling. Selecting an appropriate method for a patient and her medical profile is rewarding and challenging in view of new medications, novel delivery systems, and evolving research.


  • Hormonal contraceptives have a number of noncontraceptive benefits, such as regulating the menstrual cycle.
  • The Pearl index is the number of unintended pregnancies per 100 women per year. Rates are 15% using male condoms, 8% with oral contraceptives, 3% with depot medroxyprogesterone acetate (Depo-Provera) injections, and less than 1% with intrauterine devices or female or male sterilization.
  • Estrogen-containing products should be avoided in patients with hypertension or who are at risk of venous thromboembolism.



Contraceptive counseling is both an art and a science. The role of the health care provider is to determine the patient’s medical eligibility and match her preferences and lifestyle to an appropriate method for both contraceptive and potentially noncontraceptive benefits, while minimizing the risk of unintended pregnancy.

Women throughout the range of reproductive years need appropriate counseling and education on hormones, the menstrual cycle, and the efficacy of contraception as part of their routine gynecologic evaluation. Issues of access to birth control, cost, possible side effects, and actual effectiveness of methods are important to discuss.

In this paper we will discuss common clinical practice case scenarios to illustrate contraceptive counseling and management, including:

  • Perimenopausal women
  • Women with thrombophilia
  • Women who contemplate becoming pregnant in the future
  • Women with psychiatric illness
  • Women with hypertension.


Although many contraceptive options are available, 48% of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended.1 In 2009, the national teen birth rate was 39.1 births per 1,000 girls and women age 15 to 19 years, which was 37% lower than in 1991.2 Still, African American and Hispanic teenagers living in southern states have disproportionately higher rates.

The rate of unintended pregnancy is a little lower at the older end of the reproductive age range, but still high: 35% of all pregnancies in women over 40 years old are also unintended.2

To find out why these numbers are so high, in 2007 the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted a survey3 that included 8,000 women reporting unintended pregnancy who had not used contraception. Of these, 39% were married. Surprisingly, more than one-third of women said they did not know they could get pregnant when they did.3


The “pill” was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) more than 50 years ago, and it is still the most commonly used contraceptive method (followed by surgical sterilization). Enovid, the pill formulated by Dr. John Rock and Dr. Gregory Pincus in the 1950s, contained 150 μg of mestranol (equivalent to 90 μg of ethinyl estradiol) and 9.85 mg of norethynodrel, a very potent progestin. Our current oral contraceptive pills contain much lower hormone doses and have fewer androgenic side effects.4

In May 2010, the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) updated their safety guidelines for all hormonal contraceptives and the use of these agents in patients with various medical and family histories. They ranked contraceptive methods from those with no restriction to those with unacceptable risk to their use. This document can be accessed at

New developments in oral contraceptives are notably in the 19-nortestosterone derivatives, the family that includes the second-generation progestogens already available such as norgestimate (contained in Ortho-Cyclen) and norethindrone (contained in Loestrin). A newer progestin, dienogest, is available in a preparation that also contains estradiol valerate (Natazia). Drospirenone, which is similar to spironolactone, is contained in Yaz, Yasmin, and newer products that also contain levomefolate calcium (Beyaz, Safyral).

LoLoestrin Fe, which contains active pills containing 10 μg of ethinyl estradiol and 1 mg of norethindrone and placebo pills with 75 mg of ferrous fumarate, was recently approved by the FDA and offers an ultra-low dose of estrogen.

Depot medroxyprogesterone acetate now comes in a 104-mg suspension for subcutaneous injection every 3 months; it is called depo-subQ provera 104. Standard medroxyprogesterone acetate 150 mg for intramuscular injection every 3 months (Depo-Provera) is still available and has gone generic. The newer product offers the advantages of lower dose and less weight-gain. Also, it allows capable and willing patients to self-administer their contraceptives. However, it is more expensive—$ 104 per injection for a patient without insurance at Cleveland Clinic, compared with $46 for Depo-Provera and $10 for the generic intramuscular preparation for a patient with insurance.

A new option for emergency contraception, ulipristal (ella) is a progesterone antagonist-agonist available only by prescription. Taken in a single oral dose of 30 μg, it is effective for up to 120 hours after unprotected intercourse. It joins Plan B (levonorgestrel 1.5 mg in a single dose) and Next Choice (two doses of levonorgestrel 0.75 mg each), which are available over-the-counter for women age 17 years or older, and by prescription for those 16 years and younger, for use up to 72 hours after unprotected intercourse.


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