What is the contraceptive implant?
Reviewed by Dr Neel Patel
Many women find the contraceptive implant a convenient and highly effective form of contraception. It is a small, flexible rod which is inserted under the skin in the upper arm, where it releases hormones and can protect against pregnancy for up to three years. It's over 99% effective.
In this article we’re going to take a look at how the implant works, where you can get the implant and how long it lasts for.
How does the contraceptive implant work?
The implant steadily releases the hormone progesterone into your bloodstream. It is similar to the progesterone produced naturally by your body, and prevents pregnancy by:
- Stopping your ovaries releasing an egg every month
- Thinning the lining of the womb making it difficult for an egg to implant
- Thickening the mucus from the cervix making it difficult for sperm to pass through
Is the contraceptive implant the right choice for you?
The implant is suitable for lots of different women, and the fact it’s inserted, and you don’t have to think about for up to three years, makes it an attractive contraceptive solution.
Let’s run through some of the potential advantages and disadvantages of the implant…
Benefits of the implant
Like most other hormonal contraceptives, the implant is 99% effective. This makes it highly reliable form of contraception once it’s been inserted.
Unlike the pill, the implant does not rely on correct use and our all-too-fallible memory to achieve that level of efficacy.
No need to remember to take it every day
The implant can be very useful for women who forget to take the pill at the same time every day. Once the implant is inserted, you probably won’t have to think about contraception again for three years. Good news for women who worry about missing pills. Although you will need to remember when it’s due to be changed!
You can have the implant taken out at any time, and your fertility will return to normal immediately.
Can be used while breastfeeding
Unlike some hormonal contraceptives, the implant can be used while you’re breastfeeding. So, if you’re trying not to get pregnant while breastfeeding, this might be a good option.
Disadvantages of the implant
The implant will probably affect your periods, either by stopping them altogether, or by making them lighter and shorter, or longer, heavier or possibly irregular.
Some women may have spotting (bleeding between periods). While the prospect of never having periods at all may be a draw for some women, others may find that the inconvenience of irregular periods, spotting or heavy periods outweighs the benefits of the implant.
Some women using the implant might find that they get acne, or their acne gets worse. But it’s also worth mentioning some people's acne gets better.
Potential side effects of the contraceptive implant
As with any medicine, some people experience other side effects while using the implant.
- Breast tenderness
- Changes in mood
- Loss of sex drive
There is also a very small chance that you'll get an infection at the site of the implant, but this is very rare.
Does the contraceptive implant protect against STIs?
The implant will not protect you against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). You are at risk of contracting an STI if you have multiple partners or have had a new partner recently. Condoms are the most effective method of reducing the chances of getting STIs.
Getting the contraceptive injection
Will the contraceptive implant hurt?
The doctor or nurse who inserts the implant will numb a small area of your upper arm with a local anaesthetic (an injection) before they will put the implant in. The implant is around the size of a hair grip, and takes just a few minutes to put in. You'll be shown how to check that the implant is in place by feeling with your fingers.
The area may be a little tender for a day or two, with slight bruising and swelling. Your doctor or nurse will put on a dressing to protect it, and you should keep this on for a few days.
Is the implant visible in your arm?
Once the area has healed, you shouldn’t be able to see the implant at all, although you will be able to feel a slight bump if you press in the right place.
You won’t need to worry about knocking the implant, as it won’t break or move around your arm, and you should be able to continue with all your normal activities.
Where can I get the implant?
The implant has to be inserted by a trained doctor or nurse. You can get it fitted in most GP surgeries, GUM clinics and contraception clinics.
How can I get the implant removed?
The implant has to be taken out by a trained doctor or nurse. Like getting the implant, you can get it removed at most GP surgeries.
What are the alternatives to the implant?
If the implant isn’t for you, there are plenty of other contraceptives which are also effective at preventing pregnancy. These include:
- The contraceptive pill – daily hormonal pills
- The injection – hormonal injection administered every 8-13 weeks
- The IUS – small plastic hormonal device inserted into the womb for up to five years
- The IUD (the coil) – small copper device inserted into the womb for up to 10 years
- The patch – hormonal patch worn on the skin, changed weekly
- The vaginal ring – small plastic hormonal ring, inserted in the vagina, changed every three weeks
- Diaphragms – small device inserted into the vagina, acts as a barrier against sperm
- Male condoms – worn over the penis to prevent sperm from entering the vagina
- Female condoms – inserted into the vagina to prevent sperm from reaching an egg
The most popular method of long-term contraception in the UK is the contraceptive pill. There are many brands and strengths of the contraceptives pill; the two main types are the combined pill (containing a combination two hormones) and the mini pill, also known as the progesterone-only-pill.