Menopause is defined as a woman’s final menstrual period and is usually confirmed when a woman has missed her period for 12 consecutive months with no other obvious causes.
Menopause results in lower levels of estrogen and other hormones and is a normal, natural life event all women experience if they live long enough.
According to Renee Eger, MD, director of the Menopause Program and medical director of the Women’s Primary Care Center at Women & Infants Hospital, there are several interesting facts about this time in a woman’s life, including:
- Most women experience menopause between the ages 40 and 58. The average age is 51.
- Physical changes begin years before the final menstrual period. This transition phase is called perimenopause and may last for four to eight years. It begins with changes in the length of time between periods and ends one year after the final menstrual period.
- Induced menopause is when a woman’s menstrual periods end due to a medical intervention, particularly surgical removal of both ovaries or cancer treatments such as chemotherapy or pelvic radiation.
- Smoking and genetics are two factors that can influence the timing of natural menopause. Smokers reach menopause about two years earlier.
Each woman’s experience of menopause is different, according to Dr. Eger. Many women report no physical changes during perimenopause except irregular menstrual periods that stop when they reach menopause. Other women experience various symptoms. How severe these body changes are varies from woman to woman, but for the most part these changes are perfectly natural and normal. They include:
- Hot flashes – The most common menopause-related discomfort, these involve a sudden wave of heat or warmth that comes over a woman, often accompanied by sweating, reddening of her skin, and a rapid heartbeat. Hot flashes usually last one to five minutes and are frequently followed by a cold chill.
- Night sweats – These are hot flashes during the night that interfere with sleep. While it’s a myth that menopause itself makes women irritable, the sleep disturbances that stem from hot flashes and night sweats can certainly make them cranky. Treatments for night sweats and hot flashes include lifestyle changes, nonprescription remedies, hormone therapy (with estrogen plus progestogen, or estrogen alone for women without a uterus), and nonhormonal prescription drugs.
- Painful sex – The drop in estrogen around menopause leads to vaginal atrophy (the drying and thinning of vaginal tissues) in many women. This can cause a feeling of vaginal tightness during sex along with pain, burning, or soreness. Over-the-counter vaginal lubricants and moisturizers can help relieve pain during intercourse. For women with more severe vaginal atrophy and related pain, low-dose vaginal estrogen products may be needed.
“Changes in a woman’s menstrual cycle are often a normal part of the perimenopausal period. Some women report regular or irregular menses which are either heavier or lighter. Regular visits with your primary care provider or gynecologist presents an opportunity to discuss whether the changes you are experiencing are within the normal range,” Dr. Eger explains.
She adds that if it has been longer than six months since you last saw your doctor and you are concerned about your changing cycle or are experiencing prolonged or heavy cycles, make an appointment with your provider to discuss the situation.