"The possibility that a woman could experience some help with cancer control at the same time she is making contraception decisions could potentially be very, very impactful."
The intrauterine device (IUD) is thought to be one of the best forms of birth control available today. Now, according to a new study, this increasingly popular method of contraception might also help reduce a woman's risk of getting cervical cancer. (Related: 6 IUD Myths—Busted!)
In a meta-analysis published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, researchers compared 16 observational studies of 12,000 women and found that women with an IUD were 30 percent less likely to get cervical cancer than women who don't use it as a form of birth control.
While a 30 percent reduced risk is no small achievement, it's important to note that, while cervical cancer used to be a leading cause of death for American women, regular pap smears already helped reduce deaths by more than 50 percent. And in 2014 (the most recent data available), only 12,578 American women were diagnosed with the illness, while 4,115 died from the disease.
But these findings are still pretty major. "The pattern we found was stunning. It was not subtle at all," lead author Victoria Cortessis, Ph.D., said in a press release. "The possibility that a woman could experience some help with cancer control at the same time she is making contraception decisions could potentially be very, very impactful."
As of right now, researchers aren't exactly sure how IUDs are helping protect women against cervical cancer. But Michael Cackovic, M.D., an ob-gyn at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, has a theory. He says it could have something to do with how women's bodies react to IUDs overall. "An IUD triggers an immune response that causes the body to send cells down to your uterus to help fight off what it thinks is a foreign body," Dr. Cackovic says. "So if an infection, like the human papillomavirus (HPV), happens to be there at the same time, your body will attack that as well, which could in turn help reduce your risk of getting cervical cancer."
Just so we're clear, cervical cancer is usually caused by certain strains of HPV, according to the World Health Organization. So if getting an IUD can help kill off HPV-infected cells, it makes sense that it could help prevent cervical cancer as well.
Unfortunately, like with most meta-analysis, this one comes with its limitations—one of them being that the results are based on several different studies where the type of IUDs weren't always specified. To recap: There are five different brands of IUDs that are FDA approved for use in the United States: ParaGard, Mirena, Kyleena, Liletta, and Skyla. These IUDs are divided into two types: copper IUDs (ParaGard) and hormonal IUDs (Mirena, Kyleena, Liletta, and Skyla). So as of right now, there's no way of telling which particular IUD had the most successful rate of protecting against cervical cancer.
Another thing to consider, Dr. Cackovic says, is the fact that women who get IUDs tend to be monogamous. "Women who have multiple sexual partners don't tend to be candidates for an IUD since it can slightly increase the risk of sexually transmitted infections," he says. Women are at a slightly increased risk of getting pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) if they use IUDs as a method of birth control. "With that in mind while looking at these findings, you have to consider whether it's the IUD that's lowering the risk of cervical cancer or the type of woman that gets IUDs," Dr. Cackovic continues.
More research still needs to be done, so we wouldn't advise getting an IUD solely for cervical cancer prevention. In the meantime, make sure to get your HPV vaccination and cervical cancer screenings, and of course, always practice safe sex.