What is menopause?

When a woman permanently stops having menstrual periods, she has reached the stage of life called menopause. Often called the "change of life," this stage signals the end of a woman's ability to have children. Many physicians actually use the term menopause to refer to the period of time when a woman's hormone levels begin to change. Menopause is said to be complete when menstrual periods have ceased for one continuous year.

The transition phase before menopause is medically referred to as climacteric, but more recently has also been called perimenopause. During this transition time before menopause, the supply of mature eggs in a woman's ovaries diminishes and ovulation becomes irregular. At the same time, the production of estrogen and progesterone decreases. It is the enormous drop in estrogen levels that causes most of the symptoms commonly associated with menopause.

When does menopause occur?

While the average age of menopause is 51, menopause can actually occur any time from the 30s to the mid-50s or later. Women who smoke and are underweight tend to experience an earlier menopause, while women who are overweight often experience a later menopause. Generally, a woman tends to experience menopause at about the same age as her mother did.

Menopause can also occur for reasons other than natural reasons. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Premature Menopause: Premature menopause may occur when there is ovarian failure before the age of 40, and may be associated with smoking, radiation exposure, chemotherapeutic drugs, or surgery that impairs the ovarian blood supply.
  • Surgical Menopause: Surgical menopause may follow an oophorectomy (removal of an ovary or both ovaries), or radiation of the pelvis, including the ovaries, in premenopausal women. This results in an abrupt menopause, with women often experiencing more severe menopausal symptoms than if they were to experience menopause naturally.

What are the symptoms of menopause?

The following are the most common symptoms of menopause. However, each woman may experience symptoms differently, with some having few and less severe symptoms, while others have more frequent and stressful ones.

  • Hot flashes: Hot flashes are, by far, the most common symptom of menopause, with about 75 percent of all women experiencing sudden, brief, periodic increases in their body temperature. Usually hot flashes start before a woman's last period. For 80 percent of women, hot flashes occur for two years or less. A small percentage of women experience hot flashes for more than two years. These flashes seem to be directly related to decreasing levels of estrogen. Hot flashes vary in frequency and intensity for each woman. In addition to the increase in the temperature of the skin, a hot flash may cause an increase in a woman's heart rate. This causes sudden perspiration as the body tries to reduce its temperature. This symptom may also be accompanied by heart palpitations and dizziness.
  • Night sweats: Hot flashes that occur at night are called night sweats. A woman may wake up drenched in sweat and have to change her night clothes and sheets.
  • Vaginal atrophy: Vaginal atrophy involves the drying and thinning of the tissues of the vagina and urethra. This can lead to dyspareunia (pain during sexual intercourse), as well as vaginitis, cystitis, and urinary tract infections.
  • Relaxation of the pelvic muscles: Relaxation of the pelvic muscles can lead to urinary incontinence and also increase the risk of the uterus, bladder, urethra, or rectum protruding into the vagina.
  • Cardiac effects: Intermittent dizziness, paresthesias (an abnormal sensation such as numbness, prickling, tingling, and/or heightened sensitivity), cardiac palpitations, and tachycardia may occur as symptoms of menopause.
  • Hair growth: Changing hormones can cause some women to experience an increase in facial hair and/or a thinning of the hair on the scalp.
  • Mental health: While it is commonly thought that mental health may be negatively affected by menopause, several studies have indicated that menopausal women suffer no more anxiety, depression, anger, nervousness, or feelings of stress than women of the same age who are still menstruating. Psychological and emotional symptoms of fatigue, irritability, insomnia, and nervousness may be related to both the lack of estrogen, the stress of aging, and a woman's changing roles.

How are symptoms of menopause treated?

Specific treatment will be determined by your physician based on your age, medical history, and preferences.

  • Hormone replacement therapy (HRT): Hormone replacement therapy involves the administration of a combination of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone during perimenopause and menopause. HRT is most commonly prescribed in pill form. However, estrogen can also be administered by using transdermal skin patches and vaginal creams.
  • Estrogen replacement therapy (ERT): Estrogen replacement therapy involves the administration of estrogen alone, which is no longer being produced by the body. ERT is often prescribed for women who have had a hysterectomy. Estrogen is prescribed in the following forms: pills, transdermal skin patches (where the estrogen is absorbed through the skin), and vaginal creams.
  • Non-hormonal treatment: This type of treatment often involves the use of over-the-counter creams that do not contain estrogen to relieve some of the symptoms associated with menopause.
  • Estrogen alternatives: Estrogen alternatives are the so-called "synthetic estrogens," such as raloxifene, which may offer the bone-building benefits of estrogen without many of the possible coinciding risks (i.e., an increased risk of endometrial cancer).
  • Alternative therapies: Homeopathy and herbal treatments may offer some relief from some symptoms of menopause.