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What Is Female Sterilization?

Female sterilization is a procedure that permanently prevents a woman from becoming pregnant. You might have your local medical provider perform this simple surgery if you’re confident you don’t ever want to have children, if you already have children and don’t want more, or are at risk of getting ovarian cancer.

How Does Female Sterilization Work?

Female sterilization, also known as tubal ligation, prevents pregnancy by blocking or removing the fallopian tubes. These are the thin tubes that carry the egg from the ovaries to the uterus. When blocked, the egg can’t travel down the fallopian tubes, and sperm can’t reach the egg to fertilize it. The sperm and egg have to meet for fertilization and pregnancy to occur.

This procedure is highly effective at preventing pregnancy — more so than birth control methods such as the pill, patch, shot, ring, or condoms. Fewer than one out of every 100 women who get sterilized might get pregnant.

The Sterilization Process

The female sterilization procedure is minimally invasive and fairly easy to perform. You can have it done at a hospital or your local healthcare provider’s facilities and go home that same day. You can also have it performed while in the hospital after giving birth or having a Caesarian section. There are two types of female sterilization: tubal ligation and tubal removal.

Tubal Ligation

During this procedure, the surgeon will typically:

  • Put you under local or general anesthesia to prevent you from feeling anything.
  • Make a small incision in your abdomen, near the belly button.
  • Pass a thin tube called a laparoscope through the incision to view the fallopian tubes.
  • Pass a device for clasping the fallopian tubes through a second small incision.
  • Use an instrument to either cut, clip, or seal the tubes.
  • Remove the laparoscope and instruments, and place medical tape and bandages over the incisions.

The surgery itself should only last about 30 minutes. Your medical provider will monitor you periodically to make sure you don’t have any complications, and you should be able to go home within a few hours.

Tubal Removal

Some women choose to have their fallopian tubes removed, rather than sealed or clipped. This procedure is nearly identical to tubal ligation but involves removing a section of each tube or taking out both tubes entirely. It might take slightly longer to perform than a ligation.

Women used to have the option to get sterilized non-surgically using a device placed in the fallopian tubes through the vagina. Due to the risk of side effects, however, the Food and Drug Administration pulled it off the market in 2018.

The Recovery Process

Sterilization occurs immediately after having your tubes ligated or removed. You should be fully recovered within two to five days. You will likely need to see your healthcare provider for a follow-up exam a week to a month later. After having female sterilization:

  • You can shower at any time.
  • You can remove the bandage the next day and the surgical tape two to three days later.
  • You can have sex a week later.
  • You can resume normal activities such as exercise a week later.

Are There Any Side Effects?

Any surgical procedure has its risks, but women who undergo female sterilization typically experience only mild side effects. These are typically related to the anesthesia or surgical incision rather than the procedure itself and might include:

  • Mild nausea
  • Abdominal pain and swelling
  • Gas in the abdomen
  • Infection of the incision
  • Vaginal bleeding

Some women don’t get their next period until four to six weeks after the surgery, and when they do, it might be heavier than normal.

Female sterilization doesn’t cause women to have long-term changes to their periods or libido, or hormonal imbalances. It also doesn’t prevent you from getting sexually transmitted infections (STIs), so you will still need to use condoms to prevent spreading or contracting STIs when having sex.

Pros and Cons of Female Sterilization

When deciding whether female sterilization is the right decision for you, weigh its advantages and disadvantages. Benefits include:

  • It’s a safe procedure with few side effects.
  • It’s a highly effective form of birth control.
  • It’s permanent, so you don’t have to remember to take birth control for the rest of your life.
  • Recovery is quick and easy.
  • It can reduce your risk of getting ovarian cancer.

Some studies have shown removing one or both fallopian tubes can lower your risk of getting some types of ovarian cancer by 30% to 50%. Ovarian cancer often starts in the fallopian tubes and spreads to the ovaries, so theoretically, removing the tubes can help prevent tumors from developing. If you have a family history of ovarian or fallopian tube cancer, your healthcare provider might recommend sterilization as a preventive method.

The possible downsides to female sterilization might include:

  • It’s generally irreversible, so make sure you’re confident that you don’t want to have children at any point in the future. If there’s a chance you might, talk to your healthcare provider about a birth control option such as an intrauterine device, which you can have removed to get pregnant.
  • The rare risk that the fallopian tubes will grow back together, which could allow you to have a potentially dangerous ectopic pregnancy — one that occurs outside the uterus.
  • The small risk of side effects such as infection or discomfort.

Other methods of preventing pregnancy you might consider include birth control or having your partner undergo male sterilization, also called a vasectomy.

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