Reason 1: Smoking and Age
You are probably familiar with these warnings. You may have heard them on television commercials or seen them on magazine advertisements. Or maybe you read my article about risk communication and saw them there. The problem with these warnings is that the wording makes it seem like you are only at risk if you are over 35 and a smoker. But the truth is that these two risk factors stand independent of each other. You are at increased risk if you are over 35 years of age. You are at increased risk if you are a smoker of any age. And if you are a smoker who is over 35, you have an exponentially higher risk for blood clots when using hormonal birth control.
Reason 2: Migraines
According to a 2010 article in the Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 43% of women in the United States suffer from migraines. That’s a huge number of women. Also, according to the same article, 43% of women using birth control are using hormonal contraception (the pill, rings, shots, implants, etc.). I’m not a statistician but I’m guessing there is some overlap between the women that suffer migraines and the ones using hormonal birth control. This is problematic for two reasons:
- A great deal of evidence suggests that migraine, particularly migraine with aura, is associated with an increased risk of ischemic stroke, and that this risk may be further elevated with the use of hormonal birth control. But if you don’t believe me, both the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the World Health Organization advise that women who suffer migraines with aura should not use hormonal contraception.
- Reevaluation or discontinuation of combination hormonal contraception is advised for women who develop escalating severity/frequency of headaches, new-onset migraine with aura, or nonmigrainous headaches persisting beyond 3 months of use.
A 2016 meta-analysis of seven research studies demonstrated “a two- to fourfold increased risk of stroke among women with migraine who use combined oral contraceptives (COCs) compared with nonusers.” But once again, like so many other things about hormonal birth control, the authors of the study report that research is lacking in this area and more studies need to be done.
Reason 3: Family Clotting Disorders
Many people have a clotting disorder and simply don’t know it. When I had my stroke while on birth control pills, I had no idea that I had the fairly common clotting disorder Factor V Leiden (FVL affects between 3-8% of people). But what I did know was that my grandmother had had two strokes. And my aunts and uncle had all had blood clots.
Unfortunately, women are not systematically tested for clotting disorders before they begin using hormonal birth control. This is very dangerous and why it’s so important to give your doctor a thorough family history; something I know I wouldn’t have considered that vital when I was 18 years old.
A lot of health professionals don’t take the time to review your family history, making it even more important that you mention your family history of blood clots and your concerns about hormonal contraception. You might even insist on being tested for clotting disorders before increasing your risk of a dangerous and sometimes deadly blood clot.