When you think of menopause, you probably conjure up the image of a 50-something woman dealing with mood swings and fanning herself while those round her shiver. Although hot flashes and hormone-fueled moodiness are hallmarks of menopause, it sometimes strikes way before you expect it to affect you.
Premature menopause is defined as menopause which occurs before the age of 40. This early occurrence of menopause can be caused by a medical condition, as in premature ovarian failure, or happen as the result of chemotherapy, radiation or surgical removal of the ovaries.
Women who are afflicted by premature menopause also experience infertility. Premature menopause shouldn’t be confused with perimenopause, which is the period when your body naturally transitions to producing fewer hormones and typically occurs 4-8 years prior to menopause. Although perimenopause can negatively impact your fertility you are likely still experiencing ovulation to some degree, and having a menstrual cycle, even if your periods are irregular.
Symptoms of Premature Menopause
Whether you are experiencing premature menopause due to a medical intervention, such as chemotherapy or hysterectomy, or a medical condition, the symptoms can be difficult to endure. Many of the same signs and symptoms that menopausal women experience in their early late 40’s and early 50’s plague those women who experience premature menopause. These symptoms include:
- Irregular periods
- Missed periods
- Heavy periods or periods that are significantly lighter, a little more than spotting
- Hot flashes; a sudden onset of heat or warmth, flushing, sweating, and rapid heartbeat usually lasting a few minutes, often followed by a chill.
- Night sweats, hot flashes which can interrupt your sleep
Less common symptoms of early menopause are:
- Vaginal dryness caused by an imbalance of hormones. This can also cause thinning of the vaginal walls and make your vagina less flexible. Vaginal dryness and thinning walls can lead to uncomfortable intercourse.
- Bladder irritability, urinary urgency and weakened bladder control
- Mood swings, irritability, anxiety, mild depression
- Breast tenderness
- Racing heartbeat or palpitations
- Head and joint pain
- Weight gain
- Loss of libido (your sex drive)
- Dry skin, eyes, and mouth
- Temporary memory lapse, brain fog
- Hair loss or thinning of hair
Although these symptoms aren’t as common as hot flashes and the like, they do occur in women experiencing premature menopause. If you have any of the above symptoms, or you experience worsening anxiety and depression, contact your physician.
It’s important to note that there are certain health risks associated with premature menopause, which are not necessarily a risk for those women who experience naturally occurring, age-appropriate menopause. Low levels of estrogen associated with menopause, when it occurs before age 40, can put you at higher risk for certain cancers, osteoporosis, and even heart disease.
Causes of Premature Menopause
As mentioned above, premature menopause can be caused by a medical treatment such as chemo, radiation, or removal of the ovaries. There are some conditions and predispositions which may contribute to premature menopause as well. They are:
- Having a family history of premature menopause
- Certain medical conditions such as an autoimmune condition (rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, thyroid disease and other autoimmune disorders)
- HIV and AIDS
- Certain infections, such as Mumps
Fertility Treatment Options
Women who are experiencing the symptoms of premature menopause due to a medical condition may be able to become pregnant via IVF or donor eggs. For those women who have had chemotherapy and/or radiation treatment, or those women who have had their ovaries surgically removed, there are limited options available. Third-party donors such as surrogacy, or, if your doctor decides, an egg donor, may make it possible to grow your family.
For women who suspect they may have a condition such as premature ovarian insufficiency, it’s time to consult your physician. Depending on the cause and degree of your premature menopause, there are treatment options available to you. The earlier your condition is diagnosed the more promising your fertility outlook.