Medical Author : Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Medical Editor : William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
- Menopause is defined as the absence of menstrual periods for 12 months. It is the time in a woman's life when the function of the ovaries ceases.
- The process of menopause does not occur overnight, but rather is a gradual process. This so-called perimenopausal transition period is a different experience for each woman.
- The average age of menopause is 51 years old, but menopause may occur as early as the 30s or as late as the 60s. There is no reliable lab test to predict when a woman will experience menopause.
- The age at which a woman starts having menstrual periods is not related to the age of menopause onset.
- Symptoms of menopause can include abnormal vaginal bleeding, hot flashes, vaginal and urinary symptoms, and mood changes.
- Complications that women may develop after menopause include osteoporosis and heart disease.
- Treatments for menopause are customized for each woman.
- Treatments are directed toward alleviating uncomfortable or distressing symptoms.
What is menopause?
Menopause is defined as the state of an absence of menstrual periods for 12 months. The menopausal transition starts with varying menstrual cycle length and ends with the final menstrual period. Perimenopause is a term sometimes used and means "the time around menopause." It is often used to refer to the menopausal transitional period. It is not officially a medical term, but is sometimes used to explain certain aspects of the menopause transition in lay terms. "Postmenopausal" is a term used to as an adjective to refer to the time after menopause has occurred. For example, doctors may speak of a condition that occurs in "postmenopausal women." This refers to women who have already reached menopause.
Menopause is the time in a woman's life when the function of the ovaries ceases and she can no longer become pregnant. The ovary (female gonad), is one of a pair of reproductive glands in women. They are located in the pelvis, one on each side of the uterus. Each ovary is about the size and shape of an almond. The ovaries produce eggs (ova) and female hormones such as estrogen. During each monthly menstrual cycle, an egg is released from one ovary. The egg travels from the ovary through a Fallopian tube to the uterus.
The ovaries are the main source of female hormones, which control the development of female body characteristics such as the breasts, body shape, and body hair. The hormones also regulate the menstrual cycle and pregnancy. Estrogens also protect the bone. Therefore, a woman can develop osteoporosis (thinning of bone) later in life when her ovaries do not produce adequate estrogen.
Perimenopause is different for each woman. Scientists are still trying to identify all the factors that initiate and influence this transition period.
At what age does a woman typically reach menopause?
The average age of menopause is 51 years old. But there is no way to predict when an individual woman will have menopause or begin having symptoms suggestive of menopause. The age at which a woman starts having menstrual periods is also not related to the age of menopause onset. Most women reach menopause between the ages of 45 and 55, but menopause may occur as earlier as ages 30s or 40s, or may not occur until a woman reaches her 60s. As a rough "rule of thumb," women tend to undergo menopause at an age similar to that of their mothers.Perimenopause, often accompanied by irregularities in the menstrual cycle along with the typical symptoms of early menopause, can begin up to 10 years prior to the last menstrual period.
What conditions can affect the timing of menopause?
Certain medical and surgical conditions can influence the timing of menopause.
Surgical removal of the ovaries
The surgical removal of the ovaries (oophorectomy) in an ovulating woman will result in an immediate menopause, sometimes termed a surgical menopause or induced menopause. In this case, there is no perimenopause, and after surgery, a woman will generally experience the signs and symptoms of menopause. In cases of surgical menopause, women often report that the abrupt onset of menopausal symptoms results in particularly severe symptoms, but this is not always the case.
The ovaries are often removed together with the removal of the uterus (hysterectomy). If a hysterectomy is performed without removal of both ovaries in a woman who has not yet reached menopause, the remaining ovary or ovaries are still capable of normal hormone production. While a woman cannot menstruate after the uterus is removed by a hysterectomy, the ovaries themselves can continue to produce hormones up until the normal time when menopause would naturally occur. At this time a woman could experience the other symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes and mood swings. These symptoms would then not be associated with the cessation of menstruation. Another possibility is that premature ovarian failure will occur earlier than the expected time of menopause, as early as 1 to 2 years following the hysterectomy. If this happens, a woman may or may not experience symptoms of menopause.
Cancer chemotherapy and radiation therapy
Depending upon the type and location of the cancer and its treatment, these types of cancer therapy (chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy) can result in menopause if given to an ovulating woman. In this case, the symptoms of menopause may begin during the cancer treatment or may develop in the months following the treatment.
Premature ovarian failurePremature ovarian failure is defined as the occurrence of menopause before the age of 40. This condition occurs in about 1% of all women. The cause of premature ovarian failure is not fully understood, but it may be related to autoimmune diseases or inherited (genetic) factors.
What are the symptoms of menopause?
It is important to remember that each woman's experience is highly individual. Some women may experience few or no symptoms of menopause, while others experience multiple physical and psychological symptoms. The extent and severity of symptoms varies significantly among women. It is also important to remember that symptoms may come and go over an extended time period for some women. This, too, is highly individual. These symptoms of menopause and perimenopause are discussed in detail below.
Irregular vaginal bleeding
Irregular vaginal bleeding may occur during menopause. Some women have minimal problems with abnormal bleeding during perimenopause whereas others have unpredictable, excessive bleeding. Menstrual periods (menses) may occur more frequently (meaning the cycle shortens in duration), or they may get farther and farther apart (meaning the cycle lengthens in duration) before stopping. There is no "normal" pattern of bleeding during the perimenopause, and patterns vary from woman to woman. It is common for women in perimenopause to have a period after going for several months without one. There is also no set length of time it takes for a woman to complete the menopausal transition. A woman can have irregular periods for years prior to reaching menopause. It is important to remember that all women who develop irregular menses should be evaluated by their doctor to confirm that the irregular menses are due to perimenopause and not as a sign of another medical condition.
The menstrual abnormalities that begin in the perimenopause are also associated with a decrease in fertility, since ovulation has become irregular. However, women who are perimenopausal may still become pregnant until they have reached true menopause (the absence of periods for one year) and should still use contraception if they do not wish to become pregnant.
Hot flashes and night sweats
Hot flashes are common among women undergoing menopause. A hot flash is a feeling of warmth that spreads over the body and is often most pronounced in the head and chest. A hot flash is sometimes associated with flushing and is sometimes followed by perspiration. Hot flashes usually last from 30 seconds to several minutes. Although the exact cause of hot flashes is not fully understood, hot flashes are likely due to a combination of hormonal and biochemical fluctuations brought on by declining estrogen levels.
There is currently no method to predict when hot flashes will begin and how long they will last. Hot flashes occur in up to 40% of regularly menstruating women in their forties, so they may begin before the menstrual irregularities characteristic of menopause even begin. About 80% of women will be finished having hot flashes after five years. Sometimes (in about 10% of women), hot flashes can last as long as 10 years. There is no way to predict when hot flashes will cease, though they tend to decrease in frequency over time. They may also wax and wane in their severity. The average woman who has hot flashes will have them for about five years.Sometimes hot flashes are accompanied by night sweats (episodes of drenching sweats at nighttime). This may lead to awakening and difficulty falling asleep again, resulting in unrefreshing sleep and daytime tiredness.
What are the symptoms of menopause? (continued)
Vaginal symptoms occur as a result of the lining tissues of the vagina becoming thinner, drier, and less elastic as estrogen levels fall. Symptoms may include vaginal dryness, itching, or irritation and/or pain with sexual intercourse (dyspareunia). The vaginal changes also lead to an increased risk of vaginal infections.
The lining of the urethra (the transport tube leading from the bladder to discharge urine outside the body) also undergoes changes similar to the tissues of the vagina, and becomes drier, thinner, and less elastic with declining estrogen levels. This can lead to an increased risk of urinary tract infection, feeling the need to urinate more frequently, or leakage of urine (urinary incontinence). The incontinence can result from a strong, sudden urge to urinate or may occur during straining when coughing, laughing, or lifting heavy objects.
Emotional and cognitive symptoms
Women in perimenopause often report a variety of thinking (cognitive) and/or emotional symptoms, including fatigue, memory problems, irritability, and rapid changes in mood. It is difficult to precisely determine exactly which behavioral symptoms are due directly to the hormonal changes of menopause. Research in this area has been difficult for many reasons.
Emotional and cognitive symptoms are so common that it is sometimes difficult in a given woman to know if they are due to menopause. The night sweats that may occur during perimenopause can also contribute to feelings of tiredness and fatigue, which can have an effect on mood and cognitive performance. Finally, many women may be experiencing other life changes during the time of perimenopause or after menopause, such as stressful life events, that may also cause emotional symptoms.
Other physical changesMany women report some degree of weight gain along with menopause. The distribution of body fat may change, with body fat being deposited more in the waist and abdominal area than in the hips and thighs. Changes in skin texture, including wrinkles, may develop along with worsening of adult acne in those affected by this condition. Since the body continues to produce small levels of the male hormone testosterone, some women may experience some hair growth on the chin, upper lip, chest, or abdomen.
What are the complications and effects of menopause on chronic medical conditions?
Osteoporosis is the deterioration of the quantity and quality of bone that causes an increased risk of fracture. The density of the bone (bone mineral density) normally begins to decrease in women during the fourth decade of life. However, that normal decline in bone density is accelerated during the menopausal transition. As a consequence, both age and the hormonal changes due to the menopause transition act together to cause osteoporosis.
The process leading to osteoporosis can operate silently for decades. Women may not be aware of their osteoporosis until suffering a painful fracture. The symptoms are then related to the location and severity of the fractures.
Treatment of osteoporosis
The goal of osteoporosis treatment is the prevention of bone fractures by slowing bone loss and increasing bone density and strength. Although early detection and timely treatment of osteoporosis can substantially decrease the risk of future fracture, none of the available treatments for osteoporosis are complete cures for the condition. Therefore, the prevention of osteoporosis is as important as treatment.
Osteoporosis treatment and prevention measures are:
- Lifestyle changes including cessation of cigarette smoking, curtailing alcohol intake, exercising regularly, and consuming a balanced diet with adequate calcium and vitamin D.
- Calcium and vitamin D supplements may be recommended for women who do not consume sufficient quantities of these nutrients.
- Medications that stop bone loss and increase bone strength include alendronate (Fosamax), risedronate (Actonel), ibandronate (Boniva), zoledronic acid (Reclast), raloxifene (Evista), denosumab (Prolia), and calcitonin (Calcimar). Teriparatide (Forteo) is a medication that increases bone formation.
Prior to menopause, women have a decreased risk of heart disease and stroke when compared with men. Around the time of menopause, however, a women's risk of cardiovascular disease increases. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women in the U.S.Coronary heart disease rates in postmenopausal women are two to three times higher than in women of the same age who have not reached menopause. This increased risk for cardiovascular disease may be related to declining estrogen levels, but in light of other factors (see Treatment section below), postmenopausal women are not advised to take hormone therapy simply as a preventive measure to decrease their risk of heart attack or stroke.
Are hormone levels or other blood tests helpful in detecting menopause?
Because hormone levels may fluctuate greatly in an individual woman, even from one day to the next, hormone levels are not a reliable method for diagnosing menopause. Even if levels are low one day, they may be high the next day in the same woman. There is no single blood test that reliably predicts when a woman is going through the menopausal transition. Therefore, there is currently no proven role for blood testing regarding menopause except for tests to exclude medical causes of erratic menstrual periods other than menopause. The only way to diagnose menopause is to observe the lack of menstrual periods for 12 months in a woman in the expected age range.
What are the treatment options for menopause?
Hormone therapy for menopause
Estrogen and progesterone therapy
Hormone therapy (HT), also referred to as hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or postmenopausal hormone therapy (PHT), consists of estrogens or a combination of estrogens and progesterone (progestin). Hormone therapy has been used to control the symptoms of menopause related to declining estrogen levels such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness, and HT is still the most effective way to treat these symptoms. But long-term studies (the NIH-sponsored Women's Health Initiative, or WHI) of women receiving combined hormone therapy with both estrogen and progesterone were halted when it was discovered that these women had an increased risk for heart attack, stroke, and breast cancer when compared with women who did not receive HT. Later studies of women taking estrogen therapy alone showed that estrogen was associated with an increased risk for stroke, but not for heart attack or breast cancer. Estrogen therapy alone, however, is associated with an increased risk of developing endometrial cancer (cancer of the lining of the uterus) in postmenopausal women who have not had their uterus surgically removed.
Hormone therapy is available in oral (pill), transdermal form (for example, patch and spray such as Vivelle, Climara, Estraderm, Esclim, Alora). Transdermal hormone products are already in their active form without the need for "first pass" metabolism in the liver to be converted to an active form. Since transdermal hormone products do not have effects on the liver, this route of administration has become the preferred form for most women. A number of preparations are available for oral and transdermal forms of HT, varying in the both type and amount of hormones in the products.
There has been increasing interest in recent years in the use of so-called "bioidentical" hormone therapy for perimenopausal women. Bioidentical hormone preparations are medications that contain hormones that have the same chemical formula as those made naturally in the body. The hormones are created in a laboratory by altering compounds derived from naturally-occurring plant products. Some of these so-called bioidentical hormone preparations are U.S. FDA-approved and manufactured by drug companies, while others are made at special pharmacies called compounding pharmacies that make the preparations on a case-by-case basis for each patient. These individual preparations are not regulated by the FDA, because compounded products are not standardized.
Like transdermal HT products, bioidentical hormone therapy products are administered transdermally. They are typically applied as cream or gels. Their advocates believe that their use may avoid potentially dangerous side effects of synthetic hormones used in conventional hormone therapy. However, studies to establish the long-term safety and effectiveness of these products have not been carried out.The decision about hormone therapy is a very individual decision in which the patient and doctor must take into account the inherent risks and benefits of the treatment along with each woman's own medical history. It is currently recommended that if hormone therapy is used, it should be used at the smallest effective dose for the shortest possible time. It is currently recommended that hormone therapy be used if the balance of risks and benefits is favorable for the individual woman.
Hormone therapy for menopause (continued)
Oral contraceptive pills
Oral contraceptive pills are another form of hormone therapy often prescribed for women in perimenopause to treat irregular vaginal bleeding.
Prior to treatment, a doctor must exclude other causes of erratic vaginal bleeding. Women in the menopausal transition tend to have considerable breakthrough bleeding when given estrogen therapy. Therefore, oral contraceptives are often given to women in the menopause transition to regulate menstrual periods, relieve hot flashes, as well as to provide contraception. The list of contraindications for oral contraceptives in women going through the menopause transition is the same as that for premenopausal women.
Local (vaginal) hormone and non-hormone treatments
There are also local (meaning applied directly to the vagina) hormonal treatments for the symptoms of vaginal estrogen deficiency. Local treatments include the vaginal estrogen ring (Estring), vaginal estrogen cream, or vaginal estrogen tablets. Local and oral estrogen treatments are sometimes combined for this purpose.
Vaginal moisturizing agents such as creams or lotions (for example, K-Y Silk-E Vaginal Moisturizer or KY Liquibeads Vaginal Moisturizer) as well as the use of lubricants during intercourse are non-hormonal options for managing the discomfort of vaginal dryness.Applying Betadine topically on the outer vaginal area, and soaking in a sitz bath or soaking in a bathtub of warm water may be helpful for relieving symptoms of burning and vaginal pain after intercourse.
Other pharmaceutical therapies for menopause
Antidepressant medications: The class of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and related medications have been shown to be effective in controlling the symptoms of hot flashes in up to 60% of women. Specifically, venlafaxine (Effexor), a drug related to the SSRIs, and the SSRIs fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), desvenlafaxine (Pristiq), and citalopram (Celexa) have all been shown to decrease the severity of hot flashes in some women. However,antidepressant medications may be associated with side effects, including decreased libido or sexual dysfunction.
Alternative medical therapies for menopause
Plant estrogens (phytoestrogens, isoflavones)
Isoflavones are chemical compounds found in soy and other plants that are phytoestrogens, or plant-derived estrogens. They have a chemical structure that is similar to the estrogens naturally produced by the body, but their effectiveness as an estrogen has been estimated to be much lower than true estrogens. Their estrogen potency has been estimated to be only 1/1000 to 1/100,000 of that of estradiol, a natural estrogen.
Two types of isoflavones, genistein and daidzein, are found in soy beans, chick peas, and lentils, and are considered to be the most potent estrogens of the phytoestrogens.
Studies have shown that these compounds may help relieve hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause. In particular, women who have had breast cancer and do not want to take hormone therapy (HT) with estrogen sometimes use soy products for relief of menopausal symptoms.There is also a perception among many women that plant estrogens are "natural" and therefore safer than HT, but this has never been proven scientifically. Further research is needed to fully characterize the safety and potential risks of phytoestrogens.
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Alternative medical therapies for menopause (continued)
Some women report that vitamin E supplements can provide relief from mild hot flashes, but scientific studies are lacking to prove the effectiveness of vitamin E in relieving symptoms of menopause. Taking a dosage greater than 400 international units (IU) of vitamin E may not be safe, since some studies have suggested that greater dosages may be associated with cardiovascular disease risk.
Black cohosh is an herbal preparation that has been popular in Europe for the relief of hot flashes. This herb has become more and more popular in the U.S., and the North American Menopause Society does support the short-term use of black cohosh for treating menopausal symptoms, for a period of up to six months, because of its relatively low incidence of side effects when used short term. However, there have still been very few scientific studies done to establish the benefits and safety of this product. Research is ongoing to further determine the effectiveness and safety of black cohosh.
A large study known as the Herbal Alternatives for Menopause Trial (HALT) tested the effectiveness of different herbal or alternative ingredients versus estrogen therapy or placebo for the relief of menopausal symptoms. After one year of therapy, there was no significant reduction in the frequency or severity of hot flashes in women receiving any of the herbal preparations (including a group who received black cohosh) when compared to placebo at any of the follow-up times (3, 6, and 12 months).
Other alternative therapiesThere are many supplements and substances that have been advertised as "natural" treatments for symptoms of menopause, including licorice, dong quai, chasteberry, and wild yam. Scientific studies have not proven the safety or effectiveness of these products.
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Non-pharmaceutical therapies for menopause
In women for whom oral or vaginal estrogens are deemed inappropriate, such as breast cancer survivors, or women who do not wish to take oral or vaginal estrogen, there are a variety of over-the-counter vaginal lubricants. However, they are probably not as effective in relieving vaginal symptoms as replacing the estrogen deficiency with oral or local estrogen.
Lifestyle factors in controlling the symptoms and complications of menopause
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