What is menopause?
Menopause is a retrospective diagnosis. It is defined as the time when 12 consecutive months have passed since your last period, and it is a biological process that is characterized by a series of events that can start as early as your late 30s and last into your 50s and 60s. Physiologically, menopause is caused by the gradual decline in the production of estrogen by the aging ovaries. This state of estrogen deprivation is associated with hormonal, physical and psychological changes in your life; however, it is not the end of your youth or sexuality.
Fortunately, doctors know more about menopause now than they did several generations ago. This means that you can do more to relieve bothersome symptoms, improve your health and avoid complications that may accompany menopause.
Signs and symptoms of menopause
Every woman’s experience with menopause will be different. For example, a few women may reach menopause in their 40s, while some women will not reach menopause until their early 60s. Most women undergo this transition in their early 50s. Each woman will have different signs and symptoms. You may experience physical and emotional changes that include:
- Irregular periods – Your cycle may become unpredictable and your flow from month to month may be different. This change in your cycle can be your first clue that menopause is approaching.
- Decreased fertility – As your ovulation begins to change; you are less likely to conceive.
- Vaginal changes – When your estrogen level declines, your vagina may become drier, thinner and less elastic. You may experience burning or itching, uncomfortable or painful intercourse and have an increased risk for vaginal infections. Vaginal changes may lead to worsening symptoms of urinary incontinence, as well.
- Hot flashes – During menopause, your blood vessels may expand rapidly as your estrogen level decreases. This may cause you to have a warm feeling that moves from your chest to your head. You may experience hot flashes frequently or only occasionally.
- Sleep disturbances – Night sweats often occur because of hot flashes. You may awake soaked with sweat and having chills. It may be difficult to achieve a restful sleep, which can affect your overall mood and health.
- Changes in appearance – After menopause, you may notice a loss of fullness in your breasts, wrinkles in your skin and thinning hair. You may also notice that the fat that was once on your hips and thighs will settle on your abdomen. Also, due to the small amount of the male hormone testosterone that you produce, you may develop coarse hair on your face and abdomen.
- Emotional changes – You may experience mood swings and be irritable. Many researchers feel that this may be cause by both hormonal changes and the symptoms that one may be experiencing. These symptoms may sometimes present as memory loss or difficulty concentrating.
When to seek medical advice
It is important that you see your gynecology doctor as you begin to experience menopause. For many women, their symptoms will go away without treatment. However, other women will choose treatment for their symptoms and to prevent bone loss. These treatments can be prescription drugs that contain hormones or hormone replacement therapy. You should discuss both of these options with your doctor to decide which treatment is best for you.
You should seek medical advice if you have any vaginal bleeding after menopause. Some treatments may cause bleeding, but it should be discussed with your doctor.
Treatment of menopause
Due to the fact that the menopause is a natural process, it does not require medical treatment. Instead, treatment is available to relieve your signs and symptoms of menopause.
Treatment of menopause includes:
- Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) – This therapy provides a low dose of estrogen (often combined with progestin) that is effective in treating many of the signs and symptoms that you may experience during menopause. HRT can be taken in many forms, such as: pills, patches, creams or vaginal rings. Each of these forms can be made to fit each individual woman’s needs.
- Bisphosphonates – Doctors use these non-hormonal treatments to help prevent or treat osteoporosis. Bisphosphonates do not provide the same protection for your bones as estrogen does, but they effectively reduce bone loss.
- Selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) – This is a group of drugs that have some of the benefits of estrogen, such as improved bone strength. These drugs do not increase the risk of breast cancer or uterine bleeding. However, they have been shown to induce hot flashes and increase your risk of blood clots and gallstones.
- Alternative pharmacologic (yet non-hormonal) therapies are also available. Some commonly used, non-hormonal medications can be used “off-label” in order to treat certain vasomotor symptoms. These have been shown to be effective in several randomized trials.
Before deciding on any form of treatment, you should consult your gynecology doctor to determine which one is best for you.
Many of the signs and symptoms of menopause are short-term and there are steps you can take to help prevent their effects. Follow these steps to help alleviate symptoms:
- Cool hot flashes – Regular exercise and dressing in layers has been shown to help reduce hot flashes. In most cases, hot beverages, spicy foods, alcohol and hot weather have been shown to trigger hot flushes, and they should be avoided.
- Decrease vaginal discomfort – You can avoid vaginal dryness and discomfort during intercourse by using an over-the-counter water-based vaginal lubricant. Staying sexually active has been proven to help minimize discomfort.
- Optimize your sleep – To help yourself achieve a restful sleep, you should avoid caffeine and exercise right before bedtime. Also, practicing relaxation techniques before bedtime will help you sleep better.
- Stay dry – If you experience night sweats, you might find it beneficial to sleep in cotton clothing to help absorb any sweat.
- Eat well – Eating a well-balanced diet has been proven to help reduce the effects of menopause. You should be sure to include at least 1,200 to 1,500 mg of calcium in your diet every day. You may also want to speak to your doctor about calcium supplements. Soy protein supplements have been shown to decrease some vasomotor symptoms associated with menopause.
- Don’t smoke – Cigarette smoking will increase your risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer. Also, smoking can also increase hot flashes and induce earlier onset of menopause.
- Exercise – Thirty minutes of exercise at least three times a week has shown to be effective in preventing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and osteoporosis. Also, exercise will reduce the stress you may be feeling during menopause.
- Visit your gynecology doctor – You should schedule regular checkups with your doctor to discuss your signs and symptoms and receive regular mammograms and Pap tests along with other screening tests.
By educating yourself on the signs and symptoms of menopause and how to reduce their effects, you are well on your way to making a healthy transition at this point in your life. You should be sure to keep in touch with your doctor and report any symptoms you may be having. Also, if you choose to receive treatment, learn about all of the types of medications first to decide which is best for you.
Our menopause patients come to us from Orland Park, New Lenox, Frankfort, Homer Glen and Joliet, IL, the Southwest suburbs and Chicagoland in Will County and Cook County, IL. Call Gynecologic Surgery & Menopause Solutions at 815.463.3000 or fill out our online Request an Appointment form to schedule your appointment with us.