Menopause and Treatment Options
Definition of Menopause
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 can no longer become pregnant.
The symptoms of menopause are caused by changes in estrogen and progesterone levels. As the ovaries become less functional, they produce less of these hormones and the body responds accordingly. The specific symptoms you experience and how significant (mild, moderate, or severe) varies from woman to woman.
A gradual decrease of estrogen generally allows your body to slowly adjust to the hormonal changes. When estrogen drops suddenly, as is seen when the ovaries are removed surgically (called surgical menopause), symptoms can be more severe.
Because hormone levels fall, 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 decreases. 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.
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
- Spotting of blood in between periods
- Urine leakage
- Vaginal dryness and painful sexual intercourse
- Vaginal infections
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, 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.
HORMONE REPLACEMENT THERAPY
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 HRT for the treatment of hot flashes. Specific recommendations:
- HRT may be started in women who have recently entered menopause.
- HRT should not be used in women who have started menopause many years ago.
- The medicine should not be used for longer than 5 to 7 years.
- Women taking HRT should have a low risk for stroke, heart disease, blood clots, or breast cancer.
To reduce the risks of estrogen replacement 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)
- Frequent and regular pelvic exams and Pap smears to detect problems as early as possible
- Frequent and regular physical exams, including breast exams and mammograms
ALTERNATIVES TO HRT
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 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. It may also be an early sign of other problems, including cancer.
Decreased estrogen levels are also associated with the following long-term effect
- Bone loss and eventual osteoporosis in some women
- Changes in cholesterol levels and greater risk of heart disease