Risks and benefits, advantages and disadvantages of levonorgestrel-releasing contraceptive implants

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Article (peer-reviewed)

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Levonorgestrel-releasing implants are long acting contraceptives, approved for 5 years of continuous use. Two marketed systems, the six capsule Norplant®1 and the two rod Jadelle®, have essentially equal rates of drug release, pregnancy and adverse events over 5 years of use. Randomised clinical trials and controlled cohort observations indicate that for the first 3 years, when pregnancy rates are at or almost zero, no other contraceptive system is more effective, although etonogestrel implants provide equal effectiveness. Annual pregnancy rates rise in the fifth year of continuous use but remain below 1 per 100 women. Annual pregnancy rates of Norplant® users remain below 1 per 100 throughout 7 years of continuous use. Levonorgestrel implants provide low progestogen doses; 40-50 μg/day at 1 year of use, decreasing to 25-30 μg/day in the fifth year. Serum levels of levonorgestrel at 5 years are 60-65% of those levels measured at 1 month of use. Adverse effects with levonorgestrel implants are similar to those observed with progestogen only and combined oral contraceptives. Risks of ectopic pregnancy, other pregnancy complications and pelvic inflammatory disease are reduced in comparison with those of women using copper or non-medicated intrauterine devices. Risks of developing gallbladder disease and hypertension or borderline hypertension, although small, are about 1.5 and 1.8 times greater, respectively, in women using levonorgestrel implants than in women not using hormonal contraception. Other serious diseases have not been found to occur significantly more frequently in levonorgestrel implant users than in women not using hormonal contraception. The great majority of levonorgestrel implant users experience menstrual problems, but serious bleeding problems are not more frequent than in controls. Other health problems reported more frequently by levonogestrel implant users than by women not using hormonal contraception in a study of 16 000 women included skin conditions, headache, upper limb neuropathies, dizziness, nervousness, malaise, minor visual disturbances, respiratory conditions, arthropathies, weight change, anxiety and non-clinical depression. Clinical depression is not more frequent in women using implants compared with those not using hormonal contraception (i.e. using intrauterine devices, sterilisation). Removal problems occur less frequently with Jadelle® than with Norplant®. The mean removal time for Jadelle® is half that of Norplant®. Levonorgestrel implants in nationally representative scientific samples, in randomised trials, and in controlled cohort studies have continuation rates as high as or higher than any other reversible contraceptive over a duration of 5 years. This would imply that the satisfaction women derive from the contraceptive effectiveness of levonorgestrel implants greatly outweighs the dissatisfaction that may accompany menstrual disturbances and other adverse effects associated with implants.