The Side Effects of IVF
In the last six months, IVF has taken over our lives. If we aren’t thinking about Mackenzie, we are thinking about IVF. It is all encompassing, life consuming and mentally one of the hardest obstacles we face right now. Tackling IVF after the loss of a child seems almost too much to handle; however, for us, it’s unthinkable to give up on children or delay expanding our family.
Despite there being many couples undertaking IVF to conceive, perhaps for a variety of reasons it seems that it’s something that little is spoken about, including its side effects. I prepared myself for the side effects that I knew about - mood swings and pain/bruising associated with the injections. However, I soon found out that the side effects vary significantly between women and the hormones used to stimulate/trigger an ovulation cycle.
Side effects can include:
- Increased appetite;
- Reduced appetite;
- Hot flashes;
- Mood swings / depression / anxiety;
- General body aches / joint pain;
- Fluid retention;
- Upset stomach;
- Weight gain;
- Decreased sex drive;
- Breast pain;
- Injection site soreness;
- Abdominal tenderness/pain; and
- Menstrual bleeding / spotting.
Another possible side effect is ovarian hyper stimulation syndrome (OHSS) which can happen in some women who are sensitive to the drugs used to stimulate egg growth and their body responds by growing too many eggs. This can lead to OHSS which presents itself by abdominal swelling due to a build-up of fluid causing severe pain and breathing difficulties. This problem may even require hospital admission for treatment or can go away on its own in a few days, depending on the severity. In a few rare cases serious complications can develop including blood clots, kidney disease, lung disease and death. However, fortunately, these cases are very rare, and overall, IVF is quite safe and ‘routine’ these days.
The first time I experienced the side effects, it took me by surprise. As with most things in my life these days, during each cycle I feel a confused mix of emotions: that is, frustrated, lucky and hard done by, all at the same time.
I don’t really have the traditional mood swings that most people associate with IVF, much to Jonny’s delight and relief. However, the first hormone I have to take is the Synarel nasal spray that I take by itself for almost three weeks. It is designed to actually suppress my own hormones. Surprisingly, having no hormones can be just as bad as too many hormones... I don’t get the stereotypical mood swings, from crying to angry and back again, but I do find that I have a shorter fuse over the last few days when I am on the spray alone. I feel frustrated as if my cycle will never start and my patience starts to wear thin. By the time I ‘get’ to inject myself with a hormone I feel relief as this addition helps to balance my system out and also makes me feel like we are progressing.
I have had a number of side effects that were not ideal but were manageable, I feel lucky that my body doesn’t react badly to the IVF process because I know it can be a lot worse. I am mostly hit with bloating, dizziness, hot flashes and headaches. The only thing that helps how I feel is Panadol (you can’t have Nurofen) and drinking close to three litres of water a day!
My other surprise side effect is weight gain. Despite eating a healthy diet and doing intermittent fasting on some days (particularly when I am not on an IVF cycle), I am unable to lose weight. In fact, I have put on weight. Whilst my weight is really the least of my problems at present, it does play on my mind and makes me unhappy about myself. I try to look at the month I have off in between IVF cycles as a way to get my health and body back before, hopefully, getting pregnant but the hormones make it impossible, meaning that I feel like I am in a never ending battle. You also can’t do much exercise when on an IVF cycle, and really shouldn’t do anything more physical than a walk and that makes more vigorous exercising to maintain weight impossible. I feel like I just get into a gym routine in the non-cycle months only to have any routine disrupted. Small thing, I know, but it adds up.
IVF also seems to affect my skin and hair. During the IVF month, my skin is prone to breakouts, which are not that common for me, and my skin is dry and dull. Again, this isn’t really a massive concern in the grand scheme of things but it just adds another level to my frustrations with life at the moment. One surprising side effect of the drug we used in the latest round is that my hair has been falling out in clumps… although it could also be stress. Luckily, I have thick hair so I have some to lose but it scares me that this isn’t slowing down despite not being on those medications for almost two weeks now. It makes my hair difficult to manage as it doesn’t feel like my hair anymore. The clumps of hair coming out are frightening, and I worry about what it means.
Finally, the side effect that is the biggest concern for me is more psychological. It’s to do with my state of mind I am still struggling with the idea that IVF is hard for us. Despite being easily able to get pregnant naturally, we still have to go through IVF but what’s worse is that it is turning out to be a process that doesn’t seem to be easy for us and for no apparent reason. I am rationally trying to process the fact that the majority of our embryos actually make it to become day five blastocysts which, for other people, would have been good to implant and create a baby. In our case, we have to have the embryos get to that stage and hatch (that is break out of the egg membrane) in order for there to be enough cells to be tested. Yes, it means that those embryos that are left are healthy and super strong but the transfer/implant success rate is still only 50%. This means that we need to have a stockpile of healthy embryos, not just one or two. The concept is weird and hard for me to grasp, and the process is even harder. It is drawn out with all these extra stages, and every phone call, test result or meeting terrifies me.
Ultimately, we still believe that we will have our babies but not everyone is in the position to have that hope. It’s a commonly held belief that IVF is a certainty, a cure all, but it isn’t always successful for everyone. Approximately 33% of women have a baby as a result of their first cycle. This increases to 54-77% by their eighth cycle (but that involves a lot of money and time, not to mention emotional energy, which a lot of people don’t have).
IVF isn’t easy. If you know of someone going through IVF, give them a hug. Unless they are one of the lucky few and it works for them the first time around and even then it probably took them a long time to get there, they are most likely doing it tough.