What is Menopause?
Menopause is the time in a woman’s life when her period stops for good. This happens when menstruation has stopped for 12 consecutive months and pregnancy can no longer occur naturally. Perhaps the best-known symptom of menopause is the dreaded hot flashes, but the experience does not necessarily have to be as bad as it sounds.
Stages of Menopause
Menopause actually occurs in three stages. These are known as perimenopause, menopause, and post-menopause.
Perimenopause is the first stage, which usually occurs when a woman is in her 40s, or sometimes even in her 30s. The latter case is considered to be a premature ovarian failure. This stage of menopause typically lasts for anywhere between two and eight years. It is during this stage that a woman starts to experience symptoms such as the dreaded hot flashes, irregular periods, vaginal dryness, changes in sex drive, and difficulty sleeping. Because estrogen decreases in this period, the risk of osteoporosis and heart disease increases.
A woman reaches menopause when she gets her final period. This is then followed by the post-menopause stage, which occurs after 12 months of not getting a period.
Causes of Menopause
Every woman goes through menopause, but what you might not know is that it is not always a sign of aging. This stage in a woman’s life is not always triggered by her natural cycle when her estrogen and progesterone production begins to decrease.
Menopause may also occur earlier if a woman undergoes bilateral oophorectomy, which is a surgical procedure in which both ovaries are removed. Menopause can also be triggered if a woman’s ovaries are damaged as a result of cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation.
Risk Factors of Early Menopause
While we already know that every woman will eventually reach this stage of her life, certain risk factors can cause menopause to occur earlier, even if it does due to natural reasons. A family history of early menopause increases a woman’s likelihood of experiencing the same. Both current and former smokers are also at a greater risk of early menopause.
Symptoms of Menopause
While the signs of menopause may be different for each woman, some symptoms occur more frequently during this period. These include the following:
1. Hot Flashes
One of the most common symptoms of menopause is hot flashes, with an estimated 75 percent of women experiencing it. This is when a woman feels short and sudden bursts of heat, often in the face, neck, and chest. This symptom can cause her skin to redden and become sweaty.
2. Irregular Periods
One of the first signs of menopause is when a woman begins to experience changes in the pattern of her periods. Her cycle may occur more frequently (such as every two or three weeks instead of four), or it may be months between each period. She might also menstruate more heavily or more lightly than usual.
3. Vaginal Dryness
Vaginal dryness causes soreness or itchiness inside or around the vagina. This can result in pain, itching, or discomfort during sex. It may also cause a woman to pee more frequently than usual and sometimes results in urinary tract infections (UTIs).
4. Changes in Sex Drive
The symptoms of vaginal dryness often cause a decrease in sex drive. The reduction of the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone also results in lower libido.
5. Night Sweats
Hot flashes that occur at night are a cause of night sweats. When this happens, a woman may find her clothes and bedding covered in sweat. This symptom can make it hard for her to get to sleep.
6. Difficulty Sleeping
Women may experience difficulty sleeping during menopause. This may be a result of night sweats and can lead to constantly feeling tired and irritable during the day.
7. Mood Changes
Menopause can also trigger mood changes in a woman. She may begin to find herself more prone to feelings of anxiety and depression.
8. Joint Pain
Because the female hormone estrogen is responsible for protecting joints and reducing inflammation, the drop in its levels during menopause can cause stiff or painful joints. The risk of osteoporosis and osteoarthritis also go up.
Diagnosis of Menopause
Many women do not really know the signs of menopause — or more specifically, perimenopause — aside from hot flashes. This is why it is a good idea for women to talk to their doctor about perimenopause and menopause even long before it happens. If their ob-gyn can explain what signs to look out for, it would be easier for a woman to recognize perimenopause when she reaches it.
Lab tests are not usually necessary to diagnose menopause. However, some tests can help identify if a woman is going through menopause or if her symptoms might be caused by something else. Her levels of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) may be checked, as this is expected to increase the years before and during menopause. A decrease in levels of estradiol may also confirm menopause. Thyroid problems often have symptoms similar to menopause, so thyroid hormone levels may be checked to determine if thyroid issues might be the real cause of the symptoms.
Treatment of Menopause
While menopause itself can not be treated or cured, its symptoms can be managed with the right treatment. While some women might opt not to get any treatment at all if their symptoms are not too much of a bother, others may choose to make lifestyle changes, take medication, or use natural remedies to make their symptoms more manageable.
A woman should consult with her doctor before choosing a treatment, but here are some that her ob-gyn might recommend.
1. Hormone Therapy
A woman can take estrogen or a combination of estrogen and progesterone in the form of a pill or skin patch. This kind of medication can help relieve hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and some other symptoms. On the downside, these extra hormones may increase the risk of certain cancers, blood clots, and stroke.
2. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)
Low doses of the antidepressant selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can help in managing hot flashes by decreasing the frequency and severity.
3. Estrogen Cream, Tablet, or Ring
Estrogen may be applied topically in the form of a cream, tablet, or ring to relieve dryness of the vagina.
1. Adequate Sleep
Improving sleeping habits can help a menopausal woman get the adequate amount of sleep she needs to feel well-rested, even if she gets night sweats.
2. Relaxation Techniques
Relaxation techniques can be helpful to some women in easing symptoms of menopause. Some methods a woman can try include meditation, deep breathing, and other mindfulness practices.
3. Layered Clothing
Dressing in layers can help relieve symptoms of hot flashes. This makes it easier for a woman to remove or add layers of clothing to adjust to the changes in her body temperature.
While soy-based foods do not appear to have any effect on hot flashes, soy isoflavone supplements have been shown to reduce the severity and frequency of occurrence.
Women experiencing vaginal dryness may use an over the counter lubricant to relieve the dryness and pain, especially during intercourse.
While there is not enough research on the subject, the practice of acupuncture might help provide relief for symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes, mood swings, and difficulty sleeping.
4. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
If the changes in mood triggered by menopause are becoming a problem, a woman may want to give cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) a try. This form of therapy can particularly help with feelings of depression as well as sleep issues.
Complications of Menopause
Menopause does not simply mean the end of menstrual periods. The decrease of estrogen and other hormonal changes that occurs may increase a woman’s risk of developing other health conditions.
Possible complications include osteoporosis, slower metabolic function and weight gain due to hormonal changes, dyspareunia or painful intercourse due to vaginal dryness, vaginal atrophy or the thinning of the walls of the vagina, urinary incontinence or loss of bladder control, urinary urgency or the sudden need to urinate, urinary tract infections (UTIs), and heart disease.
Any condition that might develop due to menopause should be checked by a medical professional for proper diagnosis. With the right treatment and lifestyle changes, a woman can still enjoy a good quality of life even after menopause.