Menopause is the transition period in a woman's life when her ovaries stop producing eggs, her body produces less estrogen and progesterone, and menstruation becomes less frequent, eventually stopping altogether.
Menopause is a natural event that normally occurs between the ages of 45 and 55.
Once menopause is complete (called postmenopause) and you have not had a period for 1 year, you are no longer at risk of becoming pregnant.
The symptoms of menopause are caused by changes in estrogen and progesterone levels. The ovaries make less of these hormones over time. The specific symptoms and how significant (mild, moderate, or severe) they are varies from woman to woman.
A gradual decrease of estrogen generally allows your body to slowly adjust to the hormonal changes. Hot flashes and sweats are at their worst for the first 1 - 2 years. Menopause may last 5 or more years.
Estrogen levels may drop suddenly after some medical treatments, as is seen when the ovaries are removed surgically (called surgical menopause). Chemotherapy and anti-estrogen treatment for breast cancer are other examples. Symptoms can be more severe and start more suddenly in these circumstances.
As a result of the fall in hormone levels, changes occur in the entire female reproductive system. The vaginal walls become less elastic and thinner. The vagina becomes shorter. Lubricating secretions from the vagina become watery. The outside genital tissue thins. This is called atrophy of the labia.
In some women, menstrual flow comes to a sudden halt. More commonly, it slowly stops over time. During this time, the menstrual periods generally become either more closely or more widely spaced. This irregularity may last for 1 - 3 years before menstruation finally ends completely. Before this the cycle length may shorten to as little as every 3 weeks.
Common symptoms of menopause include:
- Heart pounding or racing
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Skin flushing
- Sleeping problems (insomnia)
Other symptoms of menopause may include:
- Decreased interest in sex, possibly decreased response to sexual stimulation
- Forgetfulness (in some women)
- Irregular menstrual periods
- Mood swings including irritability, depression, and anxiety
- Urine leakage
- Vaginal dryness and painful sexual intercourse
- Vaginal infections
- Joint aches and pains
- Irregular heartbeat (palpitations)
Exams and Tests
Blood and urine tests can be used to measure changes in hormone levels that may signal when a woman is close to menopause or has already gone through menopause. Examples of these tests include:
A pelvic exam may indicate changes in the vaginal lining caused by declining estrogen levels. The doctor may perform a bone density test to screen for low bone density levels that occur with osteoporosis.
Treatment with hormones may be helpful if you have severe symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats, mood issues, or vaginal dryness.
Discuss the decision to take hormones thoroughly with your doctor, weighing your risks against any possible benefits. Pay careful attention to the many options currently available to you that do not involve taking hormones. Every woman is different. Your doctor should be aware of your entire medical history when considering prescribing hormone therapy.
If you have a uterus and decide to take estrogen, you must also take progesterone to prevent endometrial cancer (cancer of the lining of the uterus). If you do not have a uterus, progesterone is not necessary.
Several major studies have questioned the health benefits and risks of hormone replacement therapy, including the risk of developing breast cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and blood clots.
Current guidelines support the use of HT for the treatment of hot flashes. Specific recommendations:
- T may be started in women who have recently entered menopause.
- HRT should not be used in women who started menopause many years ago.
- The medicine should not be used for longer than 5 years.
- Women taking HT should have a baseline low risk for stroke, heart disease, blood clots, or breast cancer.
To reduce the risks of estrogen therapy and still gain the benefits of the treatment, your doctor may recommend:
- Using estrogen or progesterone regimens that do not contain the form of progesterone used in the study
- Using a lower dose of estrogen or a different estrogen preparation (for instance, a vaginal cream rather than a pill)
- Having frequent and regular pelvic exams and Pap smears to detect problems as early as possible
- Having frequent and regular physical exams, including breast exams and mammograms
See also: Hormone therapy for more information about taking hormone therapy.
ALTERNATIVES TO HT
There are some medications available to help with mood swings, hot flashes, and other symptoms. These include low doses of antidepressants such as paroxetine (Paxil), venlafaxine (Effexor), bupropion (Wellbutrin), and fluoxetine (Prozac), or clonidine, which is normally used to control high blood pressure. Gabapentin is also effective for reducing hot flashes.
The good news is that you can take many steps to reduce your symptoms without taking hormones:
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and spicy foods
- Dress lightly and in layers
- Eat soy foods
- Get adequate calcium and vitamin D in food and/or supplements
- Get plenty of exercise
- Perform Kegel exercises daily to strengthen the muscles of your vagina and pelvis
- Practice slow, deep breathing whenever a hot flash starts to come on (try taking six breaths per minute)
- Remain sexually active
- See an acupuncture specialist
- Try relaxation techniques such as yoga, tai chi, or meditation
- Use water-based lubricants during sexual intercourse
Postmenopausal bleeding may occur. This bleeding is often nothing to worry about. However, your health care provider should always check any postmenopausal bleeding, because it may be an early sign of other problems, including cancer.
Decreased estrogen levels are also associated with the following long-term effects:
- Bone loss and eventual osteoporosis in some women
- Changes in cholesterol levels and greater risk of heart disease
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if:
- You are spotting blood between periods
- You have had 12 consecutive months with no period and suddenly vaginal bleeding or spotting begins again
Menopause is a natural and expected part of a woman's development and does not need to be prevented. However, there are ways to reduce or eliminate some of the symptoms of menopause.
You can reduce your risk of long-term problems such as osteoporosis and heart disease by taking the following steps:
- Control your blood pressure, cholesterol, and other risk factors for heart disease.
- Do NOT smoke. Cigarette use can cause early menopause.
- Eat a low-fat diet.
- Get regular exercise. Resistance exercises help strengthen your bones and improve your balance.
- If you show early signs of bone loss, talk to your doctor about medications that can help stop further weakening.
- Take calcium and vitamin D.
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National Osteoporosis Foundation. Clinician's Guide to Prevention and Treatment of Osteoporosis. Feb. 2008. Accessed July 23, 2008.
Rossouw JE, Prentice RL, Manson JE, Wu L, Barad D, Barnabei VM, et al. Postmenopausal hormone therapy and risk of cardiovascular disease by age and years since menopause. JAMA. 2007 Apr 4;297(13):1465-77.
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Hormone therapy for the prevention of chronic conditions in postmenopausal women: recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Ann Intern Med. 2005;142:855-860
Reviewed By: Susan Storck, MD, FACOG, Chief, Eastside Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, Redmond, Washington; Clinical Teaching Faculty, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.