What Are the Benefits – and Risks – of Using a Vaginal Ring?

The world of birth control can be a wildly confusing one, and finding the right contraceptive method for you can feel like something like a hunt for the holy grail. Roughly 60 percent of women of childbearing age in the US use some form of contraception, but as far as the specific form, there’s really a whole myriad of products to choose from when it comes to preventing pregnancy.

According to recent data about the preferred contraceptive methods that most women opt for, about 25 percent of contraceptive users take some form of the pill, while 21 percent actually go for tubal sterilization (i.e. getting their tubes tied). Another 14 percent rely on male condoms, and 11 percent use an IUD. Vaginal rings, meanwhile, come in pretty low on the list with only 2.4 percent of contraceptive users noting it as their preferred method. Still, as vaginal rings gain popularity across the country, it helps to know a little more about the growing contraceptive trend.

So what exactly is it? The most popular brand, NuvaRing, was introduced to the market in 2001 as a substitution for the pill that doesn’t have to be attended to on a daily basis. The general idea is that the flexible ring is inserted into the vagina and stays there for three weeks, then is removed for a week when a woman has her period. A new ring is then put in after the period is over, and the cycle continues on a monthly basis.

The vaginal ring is a form of hormonal birth control, as it contains synthetic estrogen and progesterone that is slowly released and absorbed into the bloodstream over the three-week period instead of first going through the digestive system as the pill does. The hormones tell the body to stop ovulation and thicken cervical mucus to block sperm from passing further than the vagina.

The main advantages of using a vaginal ring are convenience, comfort, and effectiveness: you get the same percentage of coverage against pregnancy (99 percent) as the pill without the hassle of remembering to take your medicine at the same time every day. You and any sexual partners are unlikely to ever feel the device unless intentionally searching for it, and you don’t have to make a doctor’s appointment (or cough up a co-pay) to use it.

The most common side effects are similar to those of the pill: headaches, moodiness, vaginal discharge, nausea, weight gain, breast tenderness, painful menstrual periods, and acne, with the added increased likelihood of vaginal irritation.

A more worrisome potential side effect, though, is the threat of life-endangering pulmonary problems like a pulmonary embolism or deep vein thrombosis. These serious risks have been reported in a higher number of NuvaRing users than women who take the pill, although the number is still incredibly low at just under one percent. Most women who use some form of hormonal birth control are aware of the increased risk of vascular side effects.

As with any form of birth control, you should consult a physician (preferably a gynecologist) when choosing the best option for you. But if you’re bad at taking pills, aren’t prone to particularly negative hormonal side effects, and are able to have safe sex without using a condom or diaphragm, ask your physician about trying out a vaginal ring.