The menopause journey is different for every woman – it begins differently, ends differently, and lasts differently for each of us. So even if we know that other women also go through a similar experience at some point in their lives, we may still feel alone in our journey. Considering the challenging symptoms that come with menopause, feeling alone and helpless is the last thing we need.
To help you through your menopause journey, here’s a turn-by-turn guided tour.
Perimenopause – Your Journey Begins Here
This is when your body will first give you some physical signs that the process of menopause has begun. The signs may include irregular periods, vaginal dryness, mood swings, hot flashes, and night sweats, caused by the changing levels of estrogen, as your body moves towards its last menstrual period. For some women, their last menstruation can still be years away – from four to eight years; for others, perimenopause lasts only a few months.
Not all women experience the same perimenopausal symptoms; some do not have any at all.
Menopause Detour: Primary Ovarian Insufficiency (POI)
POI usually affects women under 40; the condition is characterized by amenorrhea – or the absence of menstruation – or regularly irregular periods, combined with increased levels of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH). Women with POI have fewer eggs and typically experience menopause earlier than is normal.
If you believe you have undiagnosed POI, visit a primary care physician near you, or an OB-GYN, as the associated lower estrogen levels also mean lower bone density and reduced sexual and brain function. You may be more comfortable speaking about your female problems with a female family medicine doctor, and your local family medicine clinic should be able to offer the services of one.
Your Destination – Menopause
Menopause can only be confirmed when you have not had your period for 12 consecutive months. But tell-tale physical changes will also let you know when you have reached this important transition in your life. These include:
- Hot flashes are so-called due to the sudden rush of bodily heat or warmth that also causes sweating, skin redness, and increased heart rate, and is usually followed by a wave of coldness. Hot flashes can last from 1 minute to 5 minutes, and are the most common symptom of menopause.
- Night sweats are hot flashes that occur at night, usually during sleep. It is actually the loss of sleep and the frequent discomfort from hot flashes and night sweats that also lead to menopause-related irritability experienced by women.
- Vaginal atrophy occurs when estrogen levels drop during menopause. The condition is characterized by the drying and thinning of vaginal tissues, and makes intercourse painful for most women.
Menopause is a challenging period for countless women. Understanding what happens to your body certainly helps; and so does talking to an expert who can advise you on the steps you can take and available treatment options that will make the experience easier. While having your final menstrual period means the end of your reproductive age and may seem like a sad occasion, especially for women who still want to bear a child, it also heralds the beginning of a new stage in your life. (Note: Read about making your menopause journey a positive experience in a related article.)
The typical menopausal age range for North American women is between 40 and 58; the average is 51 years old. But it is also normal for some women to reach the end of their menstrual years in their 30s, or their 60s. Your mother’s menopausal age usually determines the age when you’ll have yours.
If you’re a smoker, however, you menopause may come a few years earlier.
Postmenopause – Your Journey Continues
Most women experience hot flashes up to two or three years after their last menstrual period. For others, about 20 percent of women, hot flashes will be a part of their lives for good. Menopause also usually means that vaginal dryness will be a permanent condition, together with vaginal irritation, pain, and urinary urgency during intercourse.
The bad news is that some of these symptoms may get worse over time; the good news is, there are available treatments to manage and even improve these symptoms. Again, visit a female primary care doctor near you to discuss your options.