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 means "the time around menopause" and 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. Postmenopause is the entire period of time that comes after the last menstrual period.
Menopause is the time in a woman's life when the function of the ovaries ceases. 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 developosteoporosis (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.
The average age of menopause is 51 years old. But there is no way to predict when an individual woman will enter 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 the 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.
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. 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. It is important to remember that all women who develop irregular menses should be evaluated by her 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 & 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. 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.
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 changes
Many 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 acnein 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.
Natural decline of reproductive hormones. As you approach your late 30s, your ovaries start making less estrogen and progesterone, the hormones that regulate menstruation. During this time, fewer potential eggs are ripening in your ovaries each month, and ovulation is less predictable.
Also, the post-ovulation surge in progesterone — the hormone that prepares your body for pregnancy — becomes less dramatic. Your fertility declines, partially due to these hormonal effects.
These changes become more pronounced in your 40s. Your menstrual periods may become longer or shorter, heavier or lighter, and more or less frequent, until eventually, your ovaries stop producing eggs, and you have no more periods. It's possible, but very unusual, to menstruate every month right up to your last period. More likely, you'll experience some irregularity in your periods.
Hysterectomy. A hysterectomy that removes your uterus, but not your ovaries, usually doesn't cause menopause. Although you no longer have periods, your ovaries still release eggs and produce estrogen and progesterone. But an operation that removes both your uterus and your ovaries (total hysterectomy and bilateral oophorectomy) does cause menopause, without any transitional phase. Your periods stop immediately, and you're likely to have hot flashes and other menopausal signs and symptoms.
Chemotherapy and radiation therapy. These cancer therapies can induce menopause, causing symptoms such as hot flashes during the course of treatment or within three to six months.
Primary ovarian insufficiency. Approximately 1 percent of women experience menopause before age 40. Menopause may result from primary ovarian insufficiency — when your ovaries fail to produce normal levels of reproductive hormones — stemming from genetic factors or autoimmune disease, but often no cause for primary ovarian insufficiency can be found.
Menopause itself is a normal part of life and not a disease that requires treatment. However, treatment of associated symptoms is possible if these become substantial or severe.
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 (patch and spray). 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. The WHI study findings do not support the use of HT for the prevention of chronic disease.
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, 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.