Here's the Truth About What It's Like to Get an IUD

ByEJ Dickson

When it comes to contraception, there are plenty of good — but imperfect — options. There are condoms, but many people claim they're uncomfortable, to the point where they'd just prefer not to use them at all; there's the Pill, but hormonal birth control often comes with a slew of side effects, like spotting and weight gain.

Then there's the intrauterine device. A tiny T-shaped object that's implanted into the uterus, the IUD is quickly becoming one of the most popular methods of reversible birth control among young women between the ages of 15 and 44; the percentage of women with IUDs has increased fivefold over the past decade, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unlike the Pill, you don't have to remember to take it every day, and unlike condoms, it has a success rate of close to 100%. 

"It's a great option for adolescents, women who haven't had children, women who are breastfeeding," Dr. Pratima Gupta, an OB-GYN in San Francisco, told Mic.

But despite the increasing popularity of IUDs, there's still a fair amount of mystery surrounding the insertion process. There's some concern that getting an IUD is painful, or that it can cause scarring or, in some cases, reduced fertility (even though recent studies indicate that it does not).

That's why Refinery29 editor Hayley MacMillen recently decided to do her part to eliminate the stigma by live tweeting her own IUD insertion:

MacMillen, who recently wrote about switching from the copper IUD ParaGard to the hormonal IUD Mirena, told Mic that she wanted to prove that contrary to popular belief, getting an IUD isn't really that painful.

"Of course the experience is different for every woman, but many women worry about pain, and the pain I felt during the procedure wasn't worse than my worst menstrual cramps: not fun, but manageable," she said. "I've heard it described as the sensation of someone jabbing your belly button from inside, and that is exactly it." 

IUDs are A-OK: MacMillen isn't the only woman to live-tweet her IUD insertion. She was inspired in large part by Alison Turkos, a reproductive rights activist who live tweeted her own IUD insertion process earlier this year. 

Like McMillen, Turkos wanted to bring clarity to the procedure and counteract myths that the process was painful, or that IUDs themselves were ineffective or dangerous — ideas that are largely based on previous generations of IUDs like the Dalkon Shield, which caused some women to develop pelvic inflammatory disease.

"Prior to my insertion I had heard IUD horror stories from family and friends," she told Mic. "I had prepared myself for the worst, but in the end my insertion experience was minimally uncomfortable."

"I believe it's telling that even with stories of fainting, heavy bleeding and cramps that will make you want to scream — we see so many people make the decision to get an IUD," she said. "They're actively saying, 'I'm willing to power through this insertion process in order to take control of my sexual and reproductive health.'"

Turkos also wanted to present an alternative image of IUDs in light of prevalent myths that they can cause potentially harmful side effects, such as migration into internal organs or perforation of the uterus. (In 2013, a number of women filed complaints against Bayer Healthcare Pharmaceuticals, the company that manufactures Mirena, alleging that the IUD had migrated or perforated their uteruses, but this is relatively rare. Perforation only occurs for 1 in 2,000 women who have IUDs inserted, according to the International Society for Pharmacoepidemiology.)  

Apparently, Turkos' story resonated with a number of women: Her story went viral, prompting many women to reach out with their own stories about their insertion process. 

Clearing up myths and misconceptions: Although MacMillen's frank narration was undoubtedly explicit, it also prompted many of her followers to chime in with their own stories. She told Mic that she brought her IUD insertion out into the open to start a dialogue and "to bring clarity and some humor to a healthcare procedure that is still misunderstood or considered taboo by so many."

"Taking charge of your reproductive health is cause for celebration, not silence," she told Mic.

Gupta said that the positive response to her story isn't so surprising.

"As a provider, I've put in thousands of IUDs. People get concerned about the pain, what to expect," she told Mic. "I think [live tweeting] is a nice way to demystify the IUD insertion process."

For her part, Turkos doesn't think the success of her story speaks so much to how awesome IUDs are (even though she thinks they are). Rather, the popularity of these birth control narratives attests to the dire need women have for talking openly and honestly about reproductive health care — whether this conversation plays out IRL or on Twitter. 

"It's not really even about one person's IUD insertion," Turkos said. "It shows the thirst that exists for dialogue about our reproductive health decisions."