Menopause is diagnosed when a woman's menstrual period has stopped, meaning she will no longer be able to bear children. For most women, menopause will occur between the ages of 45 and 51, although it is not uncommon for menopause to take place in women either younger or older than this age range. Menopause is caused by a decrease in the production of the hormones estrogen and progesterone by the ovaries. This eventually results in the ovaries ceasing to produce eggs and the end of menstrual periods.
A woman has reached menopause when she has not had a menstrual period for at least 12 months. Menopause typically takes several years to develop. During this time, fertility decreases and periods may change in duration, frequency and menstrual flow. This stage is known as perimenopause, and it is often when symptoms of menopause begin to occur.
Symptoms of Menopause
The symptoms of menopause vary by patient, with some women experiencing no symptoms at all and others experiencing multiple, severe symptoms. Sometimes, the symptoms of menopause can be aggravated by unhealthy personal habits, such as smoking. Common symptoms of menopause include:
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Dry eyes
- Discomfort during intercourse
- Vaginal dryness or itchiness
- Changes in mood
- Trouble focusing on daily activities
- Irregular vaginal bleeding
- Urinary tract infection
- Bladder control issues
- Weight gain
- Adult acne
- Development of facial wrinkles
- Dry skin
- Hair growth on the chin, lip, chest or abdomen
Diagnosis of Menopause
Menopause can usually be diagnosed by a doctor based on the patient's symptoms. However, these symptoms may occur long before menopause begins. Therefore, a doctor will evaluate a woman's symptoms, ask questions about changes in her monthly period, and take her age into consideration. If a woman is younger than 40 and experiencing signs of menopause, testing may be necessary to determine whether menopause is actually the cause of these symptoms.
One test that may be performed will measure levels of a chemical called the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) in the blood. When a woman's estrogen levels begin to decrease, the pituitary gland in the brain will cause FSH to be released, stimulating estrogen production by the ovaries. If a woman's levels of FSH are found to be increasing, menopause is the most likely cause of symptoms. A blood test may also be recommended to measure a patient's levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone, or TSH, to determine whether hypothyroidism may be responsible for the symptoms.
Treatment of Menopause
Treatment for menopause will depend on the specific needs of the individual patient. There are several treatment options that may be used to help relieve symptoms of menopause. One of the most common treatments for menopause is hormone replacement therapy, or HRT. HRT involves taking medications that contain the hormones estrogen and progesterone, in order to replace the hormones that are no longer being produced in sufficient quantities by the ovaries.
Women suffering from depression or mood changes due to menopause may benefit from taking antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications. Low-dose vaginal estrogen, which is available in a pill or cream form, may be prescribed to help reduce dryness within the vagina. Patients can also alleviate symptoms of menopause by maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle.
Complications of Menopause
In addition to temporary discomforts, menopause can also cause some long-term health complications for women.
The bone disease osteoporosis is a common concern for women who have been through menopause. During menopause, production of the hormone estrogen, which supports bone mass, decreases. The drop in production of estrogen causes bones to become less dense and more prone to fracture and injury. Medication containing estrogen can help prevent osteoporosis.
Post-menopausal women are also at greater risk for cardiovascular disease, especially in those patients who smoke or have a preexisting health condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure. A doctor can help provide effective treatment for most menopause symptoms and significantly reduce the chance of developing complications.