What You Need to Know About Menopause
Menopause, the stage of a woman’s life when the ovaries no longer produce hormones and ovulation stops, can be a difficult time for both body and mind.
Hormonal changes brought on by the resting ovaries can cause physical symptoms like hot flashes, night sweats, sleep disturbance, vaginal dryness and even heart palpitations on rare occasions. These changes can create emotional symptoms like unexpected mood swings, depression and decreased sex drive. It can even impact the strength of bones and joints.
“These changes aren’t necessarily dangerous, but with so many changes occurring at once, it can be difficult for patients,” said John J. Fitzgerald III, DO, FACOG, a physician specializing in gynecology at Abington - Jefferson Health.
Usually, menopause occurs in stages as a natural part of aging. First, the body begins producing less estrogen, causing menstruation and ovulation to become irregular until they finally cease. After 12 months of no menses, the patient is in menopause and natural pregnancy becomes impossible.
In natural menopause, symptoms may appear gradually over time and phase in and out. On the other hand, premature menopause can occur in response to the surgical removal of the ovaries. In the case of surgically induced menopause, symptoms and side effects can happen more abruptly.
Regardless of onset, menopause will affect a variety of hormone levels; causing estrogen and progesterone to diminish and luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) to rise due to a lack of feedback from the body’s internal network.
When It Occurs?
Though there is no way to predict the exact age a woman will experience menopause, the national average is around 51.2 years of age.
“Age of menopause seems to be somewhat genetic—it tends to impact family members at about the same time,” said Dr. Fitzgerald. “But, there are certain lifestyle factors and medical conditions that might accelerate onset.”
Smoking, for example, causes damage to many of the body’s internal systems, including the ovaries. Poor nutrition and metabolic issues may also cause an imbalance of hormone production, potentially leading to early menopause.
“Treatments like chemotherapy can also impact ovarian function and lead to early menopause,” said Dr. Fitzgerald.
Making the Transition Easier
In the case of some severe menopausal symptoms, hormone replacement therapies may bring relief.
“Generally, hormone therapy is for someone who is experiencing severe symptoms that negatively impact their lifestyle. Replacement therapy can help them get back to their normal life. As long as they aren’t predisposed to certain medical conditions, hormonal therapies are available and effective,” said Dr. Fitzgerald.
Factors that exclude a patient from hormone replacement therapy include an increased risk of certain cancers and conditions that increase the risk of forming blood clots.
“Studies show that hormone replacement therapy is safe in the first decade after menopause, but should be phased out at the end of that window,” he added.
Though there are no immediate dangers to early menopause, it’s important to follow health maintenance guidelines with your doctor in order to monitor a few important factors.
“Estrogen is involved in the breakdown and rebuilding of bones,” said Dr. Fitzgerald. “So women who go through menopause early might have more issues with their bones and joints. They are also more prone to osteoporosis.” It’s recommended to follow a healthy diet, add calcium and Vitamin D supplements and continue weight-bearing exercise.
Whenever menopausal changes occur, an inactive reproductive system may cause some women to skip routine examinations and testing under the assumption they are no longer necessary.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Dr. Fitzgerald. “This is a time when the prevalence of certain cancers, including breast, ovary, colon and skin, increases.” Warning signs for these conditions should be carefully monitored.
“There are a lot of changes occurring, so this is a time you should be seeing your primary care provider and gynecologist at least yearly,” said Dr. Fitzgerald.
To schedule an appointment with an Abington - Jefferson Health primary care physician or gynecologist, visit JeffersonHealth.org/AbingtonScheduleOnline. If you would like help finding a physician, please call Physician Referral at 215-481-MEDI (6334).