Contraceptive implant

There are loads of different methods of birth control nowadays. With everything from the pill to IUDs being available, it’s tough to know what’s what when it comes to having safer sex. Luckily, The Mix is here to help you make sense of it all. Today we explore the contraceptive implant and its side effects.

A young woman is thinking about getting the contraceptive implant. This is a wide-angle image.

What is a contraceptive implant?

The contraceptive implant essentially a tiny, flexible tube (about the size of a matchstick) that’s fitted under the skin between your armpit and your elbow. 

We’d reckon that the most googled questions when it comes to this type of contraception are How does the implant work? And Does the implant make you gain weight? (more on this one later).

Well, the implant works by slowly releasing the hormone progesterone. This stops your ovaries releasing an egg and thickens the cervical mucus making it virtually impossible for sperm to get through (notice how we said virtually – remember, no birth control option is 100% effective). It also thins the lining of your womb. That way if a sneaky sperm manages to fertilise an egg, it’ll have nothing to implant itself into.

Currently, Nexplanon is the main brand available in the UK (replacing Implanon). It’ll prevent pregnancy for up to three years. Just know that it does nothing to protect against STIs

How is a contraceptive implant fitted? Does it hurt?

The good news is that it doesn’t involve removing your knickers. Score. The bad news? It requires an injection that’ll sting. So if you’re not a fan of needles, this might not be the one for you.

A trained doctor or nurse will give you a local anaesthetic injection to numb the area on your upper arm. This is the bit that stings. As soon as that’s worked its magic, they’ll make a small incision and insert the implant using a plastic gadget. And you don’t even have to look if you don’t want to. Once it’s in position you’re good to go. All you’ll need is a plaster. It’s that simple really. 

Keep in mind that it may feel a bit bruised at first. But that should disappear after a couple of days. If not, contact your GP to make sure it’s doing okay.

Can you see the implant in your arm?

You definitely won’t be able to see it. However, since it sits just below the surface of your skin you may be able to feel it. Especially when you first get it. We get that it may be slightly irritating from time to time, but it’s important not to fiddle with it.

When does the implant start to work?

If it’s fitted during the first five days of your period you’re protected straight away. Otherwise, you’ll have to use condoms for at least seven days after it’s inserted.

Does the implant change your menstrual cycle?

This honestly varies from person to person. So we’re just gonna say possibly. 

You could have irregular bleeding, prolonged bleeding, no bleeding at all, or the mother of all periods. Really, it just depends on how your body reacts to it. The annoying thing is you won’t know if the implant is the right birth control for you until you try it.

What are the side effects? Does the implant make you gain weight?

Unfortunately, when hormones are released into your body there’s always the chance of a few unwelcome side effects. While some people barely notice any change at all, this isn’t always the case. Others notice some weight gain, a break out of spots or changes in their mood. 

All we can say is to hang in there. It won’t last forever and should even settle down after a few months.

What to do if it affects your periods dramatically

Your periods may be so erratic it feels like someone’s just smashing hormone buttons without any regard for the outcome. But before you go running into the surgery screaming, ‘Get it out of me!!!’, give it some time. Doctors recommend waiting at least three months for everything to settle down. 

If after this time you’re still bleeding like Niagara Falls, you haven’t had a period at all, or you’re one big raging hormonal cyclone, you might need to have it removed.

How is it removed? Does it leave a scar?

The doctor will first feel the position of the implant then inject the area with a local anaesthetic (kinda like when you got it in). Once it’s numb, they’ll make a small incision and gently pull the implant out to remove it. You may have a scar from the incision. But it’ll be tiny and only visible if you shine a torch on the spot and point to it. 

Fertility returns around three months after it’s removed

Once the implant is removed your periods and fertility should get back to normal within three months. Just remember that unless you’re actively trying to get pregnant, you should still be using contraception.

“We always say to use another method as soon as the implant is removed because a significant number of women will ovulate immediately,” says Lynn Hearton at FPA.

Can the implant dislodge itself and get lost in your body?

There have been instances of the implant going AWOL. But these are rare. In fact, they were mostly due to it being placed too deeply into the arm. Thankfully, this problem has been addressed with the new brand, Nexplanon. “The new device has been designed to prevent deep insertion. So unless you fiddle with it all the time, it won’t go anywhere,” says Lynn. “Having said that, there’s a special technique for fitting one. That’s why it’s very important you go to someone who’s specially trained for this kind of stuff.

If, for whatever reason, it does a runner, it won’t get far. The Nexplanon implant contains a dye that shows up on X-rays.

Can anyone get the implant?

 There are a few reasons it might be unsuitable, including:

  • If you think you might be pregnant (make sure you do a pregnancy test if this is the case).
  • You want to keep having regular periods.
  • You’re bleeding in between periods or after sex.
  • If you have heart, circulatory, or liver diseases.

Next Steps

  • Brook provides free sexual health and wellbeing services for young people in the UK. Brook's services include local clinics and online digital sex and relationships tool.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.

By Nicola Scott

Updated on 20-Jun-2022