OBJECTIVES: To determine the effects of the oral contraceptive pill (OCP) on skeletal health, soft tissue injury, and performance in female athletes. METHODS: A literature review was performed using literature retrieval methods to locate relevant studies. RESULTS: Most female athletes primarily choose to use the OCP for contraceptive purposes, but cycle manipulation and control of premenstrual symptoms are secondary advantages of its use. The effect of the OCP on bone density in normally menstruating women is unclear, with some studies reporting no effect, others a positive effect, and some even a negative effect. The OCP is often prescribed for the treatment of menstrual disturbances in female athletes, and improvements in bone density may result. Whether the OCP influences the risk of stress fracture and soft tissue injuries is not clear from research to date. Effects of the OCP on performance are particularly relevant for elite sportswomen. Although a reduction in Vo2MAX has been reported in some studies, this may not necessarily translate to impaired performance in the field. Moreover, some studies claim that the OCP may well enhance performance by reducing premenstrual symptoms and menstrual blood loss. A fear of weight gain with the use of the OCP is not well founded, as population studies report no effect on weight, particularly with the lower dose pills currently available. CONCLUSIONS: Overall, the advantages of the pill for sportswomen would appear to outweigh any potential disadvantages. Nevertheless, there is individual variation in response to the OCP and these should be taken into account and monitored in the clinical situation. Women should be counselled as to the range of potential benefits and disadvantages in order to make an informed decision based on individual circumstances.
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