copper coil side effects

‘I thought I was going to die’: Women are sharing their experience of getting the ‘pain free’ coil

‘My whole body was shaking’

“I had a one night stand and he took the condom off half way through, which was fucking shit,” says Phoebe, who was advised to have the copper coil fitted as emergency contraception while she was a first year at Durham Uni. She couldn’t be prescribed the morning after pill because she’s prone to migraines and the hormones put her at risk of having a stroke: “When you’re in that situation you’re just so grateful you’re not going to get pregnant,” she says. 

The coil insertion, which involves pushing open the vagina with a speculum, is almost painless for some and traumatising for others. Many women are shocked by the agony they experience during the procedure even after speaking to a nurse or doctor:  “You don’t want to scare people away,” reproductive health expert, Dr Harris, who asked us to change her name to prevent conflict with the NHS, tells The Tab. 

Phoebe was totally in the dark about the coil insertion procedure, which works as emergency contraception by releasing copper that stops an egg implanting in your womb or being fertilised.  She was sent to a hospital 90 minutes away from her campus with no information and, when she arrived, a doctor asked if she had a sanitary pad for the bleeding afterwards– she had no idea what he was talking about. 

copper coil side effects

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Rather than being prepared for what she was about to endure, Phoebe was asked if she’d been pregnant before and told to lie down by a male doctor who quickly inserted the speculum. “I’m not bad with needles,” she says. “Not bad with pain. I wasn’t expecting this to be a big deal for me.” 

Yet, Phoebe was in shocking amounts of agony. The doctor suggested he numb the area with local anaesthetic (a mercy not offered to all women, as many are only allowed to take 400mg Ibuprofen and two 500mg Paracetamol to dull the pain). But he accidentally injected Phoebe in the wrong place so she still felt almost all of the procedure and began to bleed heavily. “It sounds dramatic but I genuinely felt like I was having some kind of medical abortion,” she says. “ The whole thing just felt so clinical and violent.”

The coil is billed by the NHS as an “uncomfortable” but predominantly manageable experience. Yet, we found many women across the UK who felt misinformed, gaslit, and traumatised by their coil insertion. They were left in the dark about the physical and mental toll the procedure could have— and went ahead against their better judgement because they were scared of getting pregnant.

does the coil hurt

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Ellie* had the copper coil fitted in her second year at Exeter Uni as emergency contraception. “They said the morning after pill wouldn’t be 100 per cent effective in stopping me getting pregnant. So, I wasn’t forced [by the nurse] but it was sort of ‘you are risking getting pregnant if you don’t have this,’. Whereas, I actually think the chances of that happening are extremely low,” she says. 

Dr Harris confirms this theory, stating the chances of you falling pregnant in one cycle from one instance of unprotected sex are as low as 30 per cent. “So, that’s a 70 per cent chance you’re not falling pregnant on that cycle,” she says. “You can do nothing and keep your fingers crossed. Or you can take the oral pills, which are only good if you have them before you’ve ovulated. And then the coil is 99 per cent effective. But, if I had a patient sitting in front of me, I’d lay it all out and say what do you want to do? It’s your choice.”

But Ellie’s nurse didn’t make it clear she had a choice. “My body reacted pretty badly,” she remembers of the insertion. “I remember screaming. My friend that came with me was crying, listening to me in pain. My whole body was shaking. The woman was as quick as she could have been [but] it was traumatic because it was so painful. They need to emphasise that more…There needs to be a better way of providing pain relief because I just don’t think women should have to go through that much pain for birth control.” 

Dr Harris agrees. “It would be great if there was something side-effect free, under the woman’s control that she could reverse whenever she wanted,” she says. “[But] there isn’t a perfect contraception…We end up juggling something that’s the best of a bad bunch.” 

It’s not only women who opt for the copper coil as emergency contraception that are given little to no warning about potential pain. “I was given no heads up whatsoever,” says Molly who booked to have her coil fitted during her second year at the University of Gloucestershire because she was intolerant to hormonal birth control. “I asked at the appointment if it hurts and the nurse said ‘no not really but it affects people in different ways. You’ll just feel a small pinch and maybe one or two tiny period cramps’. Well, that was utter bollocks.” 

As soon as the nurse started the procedure, Molly started screaming and bleeding.  “I came out of my appointment and my boyfriend said I looked like I’d witnessed a murder,” she says. “I couldn’t even walk out of the hospital. He had to carry me with my arms around his shoulders. And they didn’t even tell me someone should come with you–that should literally be mandatory.” 

When Molly got home the pain didn’t subside. “I had cramps every 30 seconds. It felt like a chainsaw in my uterus,” she says. ““It would have been less painful to amputate my leg while I was awake. I couldn’t eat or drink water. I was white knuckling the bathroom sink…Pulling at my own hair to make the pain be somewhere else on my body. It was the most horrific experience and I was totally blindsided.” 

are there side effects of the coil

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Almost anyone with a handful of female friends will have heard a horror story about the coil insertion. And a survey of almost 1,500 people found that on a pain scale rating of 0-10, 43 per cent of women rated the insertion as seven or higher, with reports of extreme, excruciating and almost unbearable pain.

“Had they explained the process, I could have made a more informed decision about having it done,” says Alice who was 26 and studying chemistry at the Open University at the time of her insertion. “I’ve actually been through childbirth and found this experience more traumatic than giving birth– that’s how dreadful it was.” 

“I was still hungover,” says Poppy who was recommended the copper coil as emergency contraception during her second year at Nottingham uni with little to no information about the procedure. “The nurse said ‘let me hold your hand’ and I started to panic…I threw up on my doorstep and was in bed for the next three days. [It] literally felt like knitting needles had been shoved into my womb.” 

Meanwhile, Sevda, who was studying at Newcastle Uni says she still has PTSD from the procedure. “It was categorically the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life,” she says. “It was sold to me by a nurse who told me it would be ‘painless’ – nothing more than a ‘twang’. It was completely played down. 

“At times I thought I was actually going to die from the pain of the procedure. I was crying and screaming… I was given two painkillers and literally waddled home in tears. Bled for over a month and couldn’t walk for at least three days.”

does the copper coil hurt

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On an NHS consent form for the Mirena coil seen by The Tab, having the coil fitted is simply described as “uncomfortable”. Meanwhile, on the NHS website, the guidance says: “Having an IUD fitted can be uncomfortable, and some people might find it painful.” Although the page recommends talking through the experience with a GP or nurse– it’s clear many women that do this still feel the reality is drastically played down by medical staff. 

“It’s a bit like childbirth; everybody’s got a different story,” says Dr Harris. “So, this is the age-old problem we have. When you’re describing a procedure that’s experienced by people so differently, how do you phrase it on the patient information leaflet that doesn’t frighten people off? Some people find it completely pain free and others find it excruciatingly painful and we have to go for the middle ground. The average.” 

Yet, arguably, NHS staff have a duty to be honest to women. Particularly, students who are often away from home for the first time and making life-altering decisions about their bodies.

“I didn’t know any better or how it would impact me,” says Gabby who had the coil fitted at the recommendation of a nurse while she was in first year at Exeter. “I actually didn’t even finish the procedure because I was so frightened at how invasive it was half way through. It still haunts me.

“I told my mum and she was so disappointed that I did that to such a young body without enough information to choose between the options properly. I’d never even tried any other form of contraception before then.” 

does getting the coil hurt

An NHS consent form for the Mirena coil

Despite the agony of the insertion, Ellie, Phoebe, Poppy, Sevda and Molly were all strong enough to power through the pain and reach the end of the procedure. However, all women were bleeding for weeks afterwards without knowing why. Bleeding after insertion can be normal– but it can also indicate a problem. 

Some nurses recommend booking an after care appointment where they check they can still feel the coil’s threads in the right place. Other sexual health clinics, like Dr Harris’ have specific hotlines for women to call with questions and concerns. Some practices offer nothing specific at all. There’s no standard procedure, which makes gynaecological healthcare a lottery. 

“I never had a check up,” says Phoebe. “I’ve never been able to feel the strings. Whenever anything goes wrong I panic that it’s perforated something. I’m equally as terrified to get it removed. It took a really long time for doctors to take me seriously about the bleeding. Five calls to the GP. I was almost hospitalised before they said ‘oh shit yeah this isn’t good’” 

Ellie, who decided to have her coil taken out after six months thanks to significantly heavier periods, also believes aftercare appointments should be a matter of course. “I remember just being stuck in bed biting my pillow because my cramps were so painful,” she says. “I was sent home from my part time job. I remember bleeding through a super tampon in the space of half an hour…I can’t even express the relief of getting that thing taken out,” she says.

And the ramifications of insertion aren’t always physical. Sevda says she developed PTSD after her experience and still struggles to go to any gynaecological appointment–even a smear test. “I still have the coil in because I’m too scared to get it taken out,” she says. “Every time I’d pass the clinic on my way home from uni my body would seize up. I was basically told it was my best option. But it was hands down the most horrendous, painful, experience of my life.” 

how much does the copper coil hurt

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From 2020 to 2021, over half of all complaints received by NHS Trusts and Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) in England to do with gynaecology and obstetrics related to the neglect of the psychological and physical well-being of patients, VICE reports. 

Of the ten women we spoke to who had the coil fitted at different clinics, surgeries and hospitals across the country, every single one said it would be mentally and physically beneficial if the NHS has been more transparent about the amount of pain they could experience during the procedure. They believe honesty may have prevented significant amounts of distress:

“I think they should tell you that you’re going to experience a lot of pain,” says Melissa who had her Mirena coil put in during her second year at The University of Law after exhausting all other contraception options. “I wasn’t expecting it [and]… I couldn’t walk afterwards. It felt like something was being stapled to my insides.”

When confronted with the ordeal that many women have endured at the hands of NHS staff, Dr Harris is noticeably concerned. That’s really sad to hear,” she admits. “That’s not good, if we’ve caused that [trauma]. That’s not what we’re meant to be doing. We’re supposed to be first and foremost helping people. Not making situations worse.” 

*Names of interviewees have been changed

The Tab has contacted the NHS press office and received no response. 

Related stories recommended by this writer:

• Meet the women ditching the pill forever in favour of their mental health

• The Pill made me so erratic and depressed, I broke up with my boyfriend

• I ditched the pill for a contraception app, and I’ve never felt better