Implantable Contraception

What Is It?

Implantable contraception is a small, flexible plastic tube containing hormones that doctors insert just under the skin of the upper arm. The hormones delivered in this way can help protect against pregnancy for several years.

One form of implantable contraception is currently available in the United States. It is a matchstick-sized flexible tube that can be left in place and protects against pregnancy for up to 3 years.

Implantable Contraception female

How Does It Work?

The implanted tube slowly releases low levels of the hormone progestin to prevent pregnancy. It primarily works by preventing ovulation (the release of an egg during the monthly cycle). If a girl doesn't ovulate, she cannot become pregnant because there is no egg to be fertilized. The progestin released by the device also thickens the mucus around the cervix. This helps prevent sperm from entering the uterus. The progestin also thins the lining of the uterus so if the egg is fertilized it may be less likely to attach to the wall of the uterus.

How Well Does It Work?

Experts believe the type of implantable contraception now available in the United States to be a very effective method of birth control. Over the course of 1 year, fewer than 1 out of 100 typical couples using implantable contraception will have an accidental pregnancy. The chance of getting pregnant will increase if a girl waits longer than 3 years to replace the tube. Because if this, it's important to keep a record of when tubes were inserted and switch to another method of contraception or get a new contraceptive implant.

In general, how well each type of birth control method works depends on a lot of things. These include whether a person has any health conditions or is taking medications or herbal supplements that might interfere with its use. For example, certain antibiotics or an herb like St. John's wort can interfere with the effectiveness of implantable contraception.

How well a particular method of birth control works also depends on whether the method chosen is convenient — and whether the person remembers to use it correctly all the time. This means the implant must be in a good position and working properly, and that a girl needs to remember to have it replaced on time. The only way to be 100% sure that you won't become pregnant or get an STD is to not have sex at all (called abstinence).

Protection Against STDs

Implantable contraception does not protect against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Couples having sex must always use condoms along with implantable contraception to protect against STDs.

Possible Side Effects

Many young women who get contraceptive implants will notice a change in their periods. Other side effects that some girls have include:

  • irregular or no menstrual periods
  • heavier or lighter periods
  • spotting between periods
  • weight gain, headaches, acne, and breast tenderness
  • irritation, infection, and possible scarring where the tube is inserted
  • depression

Some of these side effects may improve with time.

Smoking cigarettes while using implantable contraception can increase a girl's risk of certain side effects. This is why health professionals advise young women who use this type of birth control not to smoke.

Who Uses It?

Young women who have a hard time remembering to take birth control pills and who want long-term protection against pregnancy may be interested in implantable contraception.

Not all women can — or should — use implantable contraception. In some cases, health conditions make it less effective or more risky to use. For example, implantable contraception is not recommended for women who have had blood clots, liver disease, unexplained vaginal bleeding, or certain types of cancer. Talk to your doctor if you have diabetes, migraine headaches, depression, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, gallbladder problems, seizures, kidney disease, or other medical problems. Also let the doctor know if you have any allergies.

Anyone who thinks she might be pregnant should not have contraceptive implants inserted.

How Do You Get It?

Implantable contraception is only available through a doctor or other medical professional who has been trained in how to insert it. Some local health clinics may also be able to insert implantable contraception. A doctor may require two office visits: one to examine you and talk about implantable contraception and one to insert the tube itself. How soon the doctor is able to insert the implant depends on when a girl had her last period and what type of birth control she is currently using.

After numbing the inside of the upper arm, the doctor will use a small needle to insert the tube just under the surface. The whole process only takes a few minutes. After the tube is put in, a girl shouldn't do any heavy lifting for a few days.

A medical practitioner must remove the tube after 3 years — it cannot be left in a girl's arm, even after it is no longer working. To remove the tube, the medical practitioner numbs the area, makes a small cut in the arm and pulls out the tube. The tube can be removed any time after insertion — there's no need to wait the full 3 years, but you must go to the doctor to have it removed. To avoid an unplanned pregnancy, it's important to keep a record of when the implant was inserted and to either switch to another method of birth control or get a new implant inserted after 3 years.

How Much Does It Cost?

The cost of implantable contraception varies widely based on location and insurance coverage. It can range from several hundred dollars to over $1,000. Although there is a charge for removal, some doctors will remove the tube even if you cannot pay.

Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: May 2010

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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