Recognize the Signs to Find the Relief You Need
Women often dread or fear menopause. But for many, it can be the best phase of life. They no longer have to worry about pregnancy. They have raised their children and are more likely to be in a position of financial and relationship stability. It can be a time to experience newfound freedom and confidence.
Menopause, which is the end of ovarian function and menstrual periods, lasts the rest of a woman’s life. And even though every woman experiences it, the signs and symptoms of menopause frequently go unrecognized until they come up in conversation with a doctor.
“As mothers, we make time for ‘the talk’ with our girls when their bodies start to go through puberty. There should be another talk at the end of the reproductive years,” says Elaine Eustis, a gynecologist (GYN) with Roper St. Francis Physician Partners in Mount Pleasant.
“At menopause, our bodies are once again going through a new set of changes, and many women are unprepared and even unaware.”
The difference between perimenopause and menopause
Perimenopause (also referred to as menopause transition) is the time when your ovaries gradually make less estrogen, but still produce eggs. It can begin three to 10 years before your last menstrual cycle. You might start perimenopause as early as your mid-30s, but the symptoms don’t usually become pronounced until your mid-40s, as the drop in estrogen speeds up in the final years before menopause.
The most common signs of perimenopause are changes in your menstrual cycle. These could be changes in flow, frequency and duration. Once your period stops for 12 consecutive months, you have most likely started menopause and you’ll no longer be able to get pregnant.
The average age of menopause is 51. If menopause occurs before age 40, it’s referred to as premature ovarian insufficiency. This is considered a medical condition different than natural menopause.
The most common menopause symptoms
There is no definitive menopause test. The best way to confirm whether you are experiencing perimenopause or menopause is to keep track of your menstrual cycles and stay in touch with your doctor. The first symptoms you are likely to notice will be irregular periods and hot flashes. When you begin to notice these symptoms, your doctor can perform a blood test to check your hormone levels and help determine the treatment for managing your symptoms.
As you approach the onset of menopause, you may experience additional symptoms, including:
- Mood changes like irritability, anxiety, fatigue or feeling down
- Urinary incontinence
- Night sweats (hot flashes that occur while sleeping)
- New-onset insomnia
- Sexual discomfort and decreased sex drive
- Weight gain
If you are living with any of these symptoms, make sure you talk to your doctor. Simple lifestyle changes, self-care and over-the-counter medications and supplements can help you feel balanced and rested, so you can enjoy life and the people you love.
Hormone therapy for menopause
The Women’s Health Initiative released a study in the early 2000s showing a modest increase in breast cancer in women who used hormone therapy during menopause for more than five years. The study generated a lot of fear and had a lasting impact on women’s perception of hormone therapy.
However, further studies by the Women’s Health Initiative since that time have shown that hormone therapy is a safe treatment for women in early menopause, it just shouldn’t be used as a long-term solution.
“In the last 20 years we’ve learned more about hormone regimens that can relieve a woman’s symptoms with less risk,” says Dr. Eustis. “So if you are experiencing menopause symptoms that are significantly impacting your quality of life, hormone therapy is a safe option that can provide effective relief.”
Prepare in advance for the onset of menopause
Dr. Eustis advises that as you approach menopause, you talk to your OB/GYN or primary care doctor about what to expect. If you don’t get the answers you need, a menopause specialist can help. The North American Menopause Society certifies specialists in menopause and has a tool to help you find doctors in your area.
“I am frequently asked about what women used to do to treat menopause,” says Dr. Eustis. “But in comparison, the average life expectancy for women in 1900 was 48. So menopause is a relatively new condition for humankind.”
If you are feeling like menopause is disrupting your life, help is available. Working with a Roper St. Francis Healthcare menopause specialist like Dr. Eustis can provide the support and care you need to navigate this major life change. Find a doctor by visiting rsfh.com/findadoc.