Tuesday, September 2, 2014
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The 'pill' isn't only for birth control

Did you know that the pill is also used for non-contraceptive reasons to improve the lives of women? Find out here what other medical conditions the pill and other contraceptives can treat.

The 'pill' isn’t only for birth control

Maybe you remember this conversation on the TV show, “The Big Bang Theory,” when Sheldon and Penny are in the Emergency Room.

Sheldon (filling out the medical form): “When was your last menstrual period?

Penny: “Oh! Next question!

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“The Big Bang Theory” may be relatively new, but women’s problems with their menses (“periods”) are not. Thank goodness for the year 1960, when the first birth control pill became available. Usually taken to prevent pregnancy, birth control pills (also called oral contraceptive pills or the “pill”) are small tablets that a female swallows each day. Most pills contain two synthetic (laboratory-made) versions of the female hormones: an estrogen and a progestin. There is no shortage of pills to choose from, literally ranging from A (‘Alesse’) to Z (‘Zovia’). Most pills contain 28 pills (for a month). One pill is taken at the same time each day. The last seven pills contain no hormones and it is during this week the period occurs.

Did you know that the pill (as well as the ring, patch, implant and intrauterine device) is also used for non-contraceptive reasons to improve the lives of women? In fact, 14 percent of pill users – 1.5 million women – are using them exclusively for non-contraceptive health reasons, and more than half of pill users (58 percent) rely on them for both a health reason and to prevent pregnancy.  They treat dysmenorrhea, mittelschmerz, metrorrhagia, oligomenorrhea, menorrhagia, hirsutism, PMS, PMDD and endometriosis! Never heard of some these medical terms? Stay tuned. …  

One frequent use of the pill is to treat dysmenorrhea (cramps and painful periods). Cramps are caused by chemicals called prostaglandins that are produced in the uterus (womb) at the time of ovulation (when an egg is released) and during the menstrual period. When a woman produces a lot of prostaglandins, they can cause contractions that feel like labor pains (ouch!). The pill prevents ovulation, which reduces the amount of prostaglandins and relieves cramping. By preventing ovulation, the pill can also reduce mittelschmerz – the cramping with ovulation mid-way between menstrual periods.

Doctors frequently prescribe the pill to regulate the menstrual cycle. The pill can correct menstrual periods that are:

The pill may also be prescribed to treat acne and hirsutism (excessive hair growth, such as hair below the chin or between the breasts).  Pills help these problems by reducing the levels of male hormones (androgens) produced by the ovary. All women make some androgens in their ovaries and adrenal glands; but when a women has these hormones in higher than normal amounts, or if she very sensitive to them, she may start to have severe acne or hirsutism.

The pill can also relieve symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), including cyclic mood swings, tender breasts, food cravings, fatigue, irritability and depression that occurs in three out of four women. Some women with PMS have disabling symptoms of premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), including severe depression, feelings of hopelessness, extreme anger and high anxiety. The pill often helps with PMS and PMDD by steadying the hormone levels.

A cause of pelvic pain that can occur in teenagers is endometriosis, a condition where the tissue lining the uterus (endometrium) grows outside of the uterus, most commonly in the ovaries. And, yes, you guessed it! The pill helps with this too!

My advice: if your daughter is missing school due to problems related to her menses, or if she just plain dreads her period, then it’s time to have a talk with her doctor.


 

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Rima Himelstein, M.D. Crozer-Keystone Health System
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The Healthy Kids blog is your window into the latest news, research and advice around children's health. Learn more about our growing list of contributors here.

If you have questions about your child's health, ask them here.

Rima Himelstein, M.D. Crozer-Keystone Health System
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