woman wiping head
by Jamie Lober
Menopause is a natural life event that is different for every woman. But there is once constant for everyone: the need to keep the lines of communication open with your obstetrician/gynecologist.
The average woman hits menopause at 52, according to Dr. Holly Miller, obstetrician/gynecologist at The Woman’s Place, an obstetrics and gynecology practice in Naples. “But it can be anywhere from 45 to 55 years-old when women notice they start skipping menstrual periods,” she added. Women who experience menopause earlier have increased risk of developing osteoporosis.
The signs of menopause for many women are obvious. “You should simply have a normal period, then skip a few months and again have a normal period,” Miller said. Once periods are absent for 12 months, women can expect to have no further bleeding.
As your body approaches and enters menopause, the most important thing you can do is keep an open line of communication with your gynecologist. “We recommend that every woman has an exam with a gynecologist or primary physician once a year to have their routine screening done including a Pap smear if needed, a mammogram, and to talk about menopause management,” said Miller. Also recommended are a colon screening every 10 years and bone density or DEXA testing every two years to screen for osteoporosis.
During menopause, your body is responding to changes as it adjusts from the childbearing years to the post-childbearing years. “It is a time when the ovaries are not producing as much of the two main hormones, estrogen and progesterone,” Miller explained. Some women experience brutal symptoms while others are asymptomatic. “You can have hot flashes, vaginal dryness, insomnia and mood changes,” she said. It can take up to five years for the transition to fully happen.
It sounds frightening, but there are ways to manage your symptoms.
For example, hot flashes often can be controlled. “For some women, it is increased by stressful situations and sometimes the consumption of alcohol or heavy use of caffeine, so limiting those is helpful,” Miller said.
“Try to control your environment, keep it cool, have a layer of clothing you can take off if your environment gets too warm, and avoid bright lights and being in the sun,” said Dr. Marjorie Gass, executive director at the North American Menopause Society in Mayfield Heights, Ohio.
Healthy living can make a difference as well. “Frequent exercise can help to decrease the frequency of hot flashes,” Miller said. Getting plenty of sleep also is beneficial.
According to Gass, “hormone therapy is the best option.” Women need to weigh risks against benefits of the treatment. “The risks associated are some of the same associated with birth control pills, like blood clots in your legs and lungs, so if you have already had a blood clot, you may not be a good candidate,” she said.
Many menopausal women experience vaginal dryness. This can be minimized with lubricants or moisturizers. “If that is not enough, there are prescription medications,” Miller said. Low sexual desire also is common. To improve your sex life, you may schedule a sexual encounter with your partner, try massage, or speak to your partner about your desires.
There have been recent developments in menopause management. “A number of new medications have come on the market that can treat symptoms with minimal increased risk of complications,” said Miller. So talk to your gynecologist about the best options for you.
Communicating openly with your gynecologist not only helps you discover the best treatment for your specific symptoms, but your doctor also can help dispel myths about menopause and provide other valuable information.
For example, “women still need to be aware they can get pregnant, get sexually transmitted infections and should take the usual precautions,” during and after menopause, said Gass.
Possibly the most important advice your gynecologist will impart is that menopause “is a healthy, normal phase in a woman’s life,” Gass said.
Jamie Lober, author of Pink Power (www.getpinkpower.com), provides information on women’s and pediatric health topics. She can be reached at email@example.com.