"The coil made my periods hell – here's why I wouldn't recommend it to anyone"

a close up of a copper iud
"The copper IUD made my periods hell for years"Getty Images

There are so many different contraceptive options out there, ranging from the pill (of which there are two varieties: the progesterone-only and the combined) to patches, injections and, of course, coils – one of which, the copper coil, is a hormone-free option.

But what is the copper coil? And what are the side effects? We'll discuss all the below with the help of an expert, and yes, painful periods unfortunately are very much something many women (but not all!) experience...

What is a copper IUD?

It's a small, T-shaped plastic and copper device that's put into your womb by a doctor or nurse and when inserted correctly, it's more than 99% effective – making it one of the more reliable contraceptive options. However, the copper IUD can cause side effects like bleeding between periods, a longer and heavier menstrual cycle, and cramping for a few days after insertion. Unlike a coil that contains hormones, it's thought not to impact on your mood, acne, weight or cause breast tenderness.

According to the NHS website, it affects your period differently to the pill and can make your time of the month 'heavier, longer or more painful in the first 3 to 6 months'.

Is a copper coil and a copper IUD the same thing?

Yep, it's just a slightly different way of referring to it, confirms Dr Hedieh Asadi (MD), co-founder of DeoDoc, an intimate skincare brand. "The copper coil or copper IUD is a non-hormonal IUD (intrauterine device) that prevents pregnancy by releasing copper into the uterus," she adds. "The copper creates a 'toxic' environment that makes it difficult for the sperm to survive in the uterus, and therefore it can't fertilise an egg."

How does the copper IUD differ to other coils?

"The copper IUD is non-hormonal and doesn't affect ovulation," says Dr Asadi. "It works through a foreign body reaction to copper which induces a local inflammatory reaction and a spermicidal environment that inhibits sperm's ability to fertilise an egg."

In contrast, other IUDs containing hormones (either called a hormonal coil, hormonal IUD or intrauterine system, known as an IUS) "prevent pregnancy by releasing progestin, a synthetic version of the hormone progesterone," the doctor notes. "The hormone causes the cervical mucus (endometrium) to be thinner while the secretion in the cervix becomes thicker which makes it difficult for the sperm to penetrate it. These two factors together prevent fertilisation from happening."

What are the side effects of a copper IUD?

Dr Asadi says "the most common side effects for both types of IUDs are changed bleeding patterns (in regards to the normal flow) and pain after insertion".

The common side effects of copper IUDs are:

  • Heavier menstrual bleeding

  • More menstrual pain and cramps

"But it's important to mention that not all women experience any side effects," the doctor caveats. "It greatly varies from person to person."

How can the copper coil impact your period?

According to Dr Asadi, "A hormonal IUD (IUS) can be beneficial for women who suffer from severe menstrual cramps and heavy periods as it will make the periods lighter, shorter and less painful.

"However since a hormonal IUD contains hormones, it will likely affect the body in other ways too. Some women might experience acne or feel they are hungrier, feel depressed or have a reduced libido. Most side effects disappear within six months."

As for the copper IUD, the doctor says it does "not contain any hormones, but a copper IUD can cause heavier menstrual bleeding and more menstrual pain, or cramps. But it is a better option if you don't want or can take hormones."

Remember: you can always switch and try another method of contraception if you don't feel that the one you're using is a good fit for you, she adds.

A first-person account of having a copper IUD

It's important to understand that every person's body is unique, and so will respond to the coil in very different ways – and while 30-year-old Emily's* own (unfortunately negative) experience is valid, so are the stories of women who've never had any problems with the contraception method.

Here's how one woman says the coil affected her life for five years...

The copper IUD made my periods hell

Why I chose the coil

I began my lifelong search for the 'perfect' form of contraception in my teenage years, at my local sexual health clinic, which suggested I start on the combined pill at the age of 14. Unfortunately, I found taking the combined pill impacted my mental health negatively and left me nauseous AF, so I then went onto try the mini-pill instead... and didn't fare much better on that.

After trying condoms and a cycle-tracking app (and accidentally falling pregnant, resulting in an abortion), I was desperate for a hormone-free option that would prevent pregnancy and not tamper with my mood or cause strong physical side effects. Step forward: the copper IUD. Given my desire to be on a more 'natural' form of birth control, I couldn't wait to get going with it.

woman at the gynaecologist
EmirMemedovski - Getty Images

Getting the coil inserted

I'm generally pretty calm when it comes to medical procedures and don't mind smear tests, so I was okay with the insertion process (which was over in minutes). I simply booked in at my local sexual health clinic to get it done and can honestly say that whilst it was briefly uncomfortable at some points, it wasn't painful for me. I lay back on the bed as the sexual health nurse chatted away to keep me distracted, then ten minutes later treated myself to a burrito.

Five years of nightmare periods

Sadly, after getting off to a strong start, my first period after having an IUD inserted was unbearable – and it all played out whilst I was on a holiday that involved sleeping on a big boat with friends and strangers. When I say paracetamol didn't touch the sides, I truly mean it.

My cramps felt akin to the gnarly pain I'd experienced during an abortion, which I've heard is akin to the beginnings of labour. I was left huddled up on a sun lounger, curled up in the foetal position under a towel, trying not to vomit for days.

I felt a smidge of relief after using a pain relief patch from BeYou (not an advert btw!), but I'd still put the discomfort as a 10 out of 1o and can say with certainty that it ruined my holiday. Given my periods prior to the copper coil had been super manageable, with just a light dusting of cramps, I was shocked at how rough I felt.

But, I decided to power through as a quick Google assured me that this was just my body adapting to the coil, and that things would settle down in the next couple of months.

Unfortunately, in my experience, this turned out not to be true. What followed was five years of the heaviest of heavy periods, each lasting for at least seven days. I'd soak through a super size tampon in two hours and wore period-proof knickers and a pad as a safety net. A third of my month was written off due to my TOTM and the blood loss even caused me to become anaemic.

Extreme bleeding wasn't the worst of my problems

This lengthy, painful bleed wasn't even the worst of my problems, because I also suffered from random cramps throughout my entire cycle (I could even feel when I was ovulating, as I'd get to bloated and have random dull aches in the relevant parts of my body). Trying to maintain a healthy sex life was virtually impossible, not just because I was always bleeding, but also because I just felt so gross, cramp-y and unsexy all of the time.

You're probably wondering why it took me so long to get it removed. The answer? I kept hoping and hoping it would get better.

Most websites and pamphlets say that periods with a copper coil can get 'slightly heavier' and more frequent after having the IUD fitted, but also state that this should settle down. Call me an optimist if you will, but I was really rooting for my little copper friend and figured physical pain was better than having my mood plummet again, as it did on the pill.

Eventually, after spending Christmas Day in bed with a TENS machine attached to myself, loaded up on painkillers and with a cramp-relief patch stuck to my stomach, I decided enough was enough: I'd go back to condoms. Nothing was worth this. I booked an appointment with my GP have the thing removed from my body.

Having the copper IUD removed

A few weeks on, as the doctor asked me to cough (as she pulled on the copper coil at the same time), the IUD came out in seconds. I'd been braced for pain, but none came – and I'm convinced I heard my womb give a sigh of relief.

While this is just my experience and I can't speak for anyone else, having a copper coil made five years of my life pretty unbearable. I wouldn't wish that on anyone. Thankfully, my periods immediately reverted to being pretty much painless and lasting just three to four days.

If someone asked me if I'd recommend the copper IUD now, I'd find it hard to say yes – although I do have friends with nothing but good things to say about it. Instead, I would advise that if you're thinking of giving it a go yourself, and if your periods haven't settled down after six months, call it quits. In my experience, hoping and waiting for it to get better absolutely didn't pay off. I think the copper coil works for some people, but really, really doesn't for others and I wish doctors and sexual health clinics were more upfront about that. It could have saved me years of pain.

This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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