Occlusive Vascular Diseases in Oral Contraceptive Users: Epidemiology, Pathology and Mechanisms

Godsland, I.F.; Winkler, U.; Lidegaard, O.; Crook, D.
October 2000
Drugs;Oct2000, Vol. 60 Issue 4, p721
Academic Journal
Despite being an unprecedented departure from normal physiology, the combined oral contraceptive is not only highly effective, but it also has a remarkably good safety record. Concerns over safety persist, though, particularly with regard to venous thromboembolism (VTE), stroke and myocardial infarction (MI). Epidemiological studies consistently show an increase in risk of VTE, but the results are more contentious with regard to arterial diseases. Despite 40 years of research, the mechanisms behind these adverse effects are not understood. In this review, we integrate information from published studies of the epidemiology and pathology of the occlusive vascular diseases and their risk factors to identify likely explanations for pathogenesis in oral contraceptive users. Oral contraceptives induce both prothrombotic and fibrinolytic changes in haemostatic factors and an imbalance in haemostasis is likely to be important in oral contraceptive-induced VTE. The complexity of the changes involved and the difficulty of ascribing clinical significance has meant that uncertainty persists. A seriously under-researched area concerns vascular changes in oral contraceptive users. Histologically, endothelial and intimal proliferation have been identified in women exposed to high plasma estrogen concentrations and these lesions are associated with thrombotic occlusion. Other structural changes may result in increased vascular permeability, loss of vascular tone and venous stasis. With regard to arterial disease risk, epidemiological information relating to dose effects and joint effects with other risk factors, and studies of pathology and changes in risk factors, suggests that oral contraceptive use per se does not cause arterial disease. It can, nevertheless, synergise very powerfully with subclinical endothelial damage to promote arterial occlusion. Accordingly, the prothrombotic effects of the oral contraceptive estrogen intervene in a cycle of endothelial damage and repair which would otherwise remain clinically silent or would ultimately progress - in, for example, the presence of cigarette smoking or hypertension - to atherosclerosis. Future work in this area should focus on modification of the effects of established risk factors by oral contraceptive use rather than modification of the supposed risk of oral contraceptive use by established risk factors. Attempts to understand vascular occlusion in oral contraceptive users in terms of the general features of VTE or with reference to atherosclerosis may be limiting, and future work needs to acknowledge that such occlusions may have unique features. Unequivocal identification of the mechanisms involved would contribute considerably to the alleviation of fears over vascular disease and to the development of even safer formulations.



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