A period (also called menstruation) occurs as part of a woman's normal menstrual cycle. During a…
What is menopause?
Menopause describes the end of a woman's periods. This commonly occurs between the ages of 45-55 years and is a normal process of ageing in women. It occurs when the ovaries stop releasing eggs, which in turn causes a significant drop in levels of the female sex hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, in the body. Individuals respond differently to the changes in hormone levels, with some experiencing no symptoms and others being quite severely affected.
It is also common for women to start experiencing symptoms leading up to menopause as their hormone levels start to decline, which is known as perimenopause. Once 12 consecutive months have passed since a woman's last period, the phase is known as postmenopause.
A background understanding of the menstrual cycle and ovulation can help you to understand menopause.
The menstrual cycle
At the time of puberty, each woman has about 400,000 eggs in her ovaries. Over time, this number falls naturally through the process of ovulation. The rate of decline is different for every woman, but is about 1000 eggs a month.
In the ovaries, each egg is contained inside a sac called a follicle. Each month, the brain sends messages to the ovaries, which causes several follicles to begin maturing. As the follicles develop, oestrogen levels rise, peaking at the release of an egg. Of these follicles, only one will grow to become the dominant follicle and release an egg at the time of ovulation.
Ovulation occurs when the follicle ruptures and the egg is released from the ovary into the fallopian tube. Following this, the burst follicle collapses, forming what is known as the corpus luteum. This structure produces progesterone, along with a small amount of oestrogen. These hormones play an important role in building up the lining of the uterus in preparation for pregnancy.
If pregnancy does not occur, the corpus luteum breaks down over about 10-14 days, which causes oestrogen and progesterone levels to fall. In response to this decrease in hormone levels, the lining of the uterus is shed through the vagina, along with the unfertilised egg. This shedding of the uterus lining is experienced as a woman's monthly periods.
There are a number of reasons why periods stop and menopause occurs in women, including:
Menopause most commonly occurs naturally with age, as the function of the ovaries gradually declines and the ovaries stop releasing mature eggs. This also leads to the female hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, no longer being produced.
The surgical removal of both ovaries in a woman, for a wide range of reasons, can cause induced menopause. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can also bring about menopause in some women.
Premature menopause is when periods stop before the age of 40. In about 8% of women, this is due to induced menopause caused by chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgical removal of ovaries. However, periods can also stop spontaneously in about 1% of women, usually due to an unknown cause.  This is more accurately known as premature ovarian insufficiency (POI), as the ovaries can begin to function again in a small number of women.
Early menopause is when periods stop between the ages of 40-45. As is the case with premature menopause, it can occur spontaneously or as a result of chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery to remove the ovaries. Early menopause affects about 5% of women and is usually permanent, as the ovaries rarely regain function after periods have stopped. 
Signs and symptoms
Leading up to menopause, it is common for periods to become irregular, especially in their frequency, but also they can be lighter or heavier than usual. During this time, fertility becomes reduced and unpredictable, until menopause is reached and it is no longer possible to become pregnant.
Hot flushes, also known as hot flashes (mainly in the United States), usually occur in the face and neck, and involve a distinct sensation of heat. Hot flushes can also occur all over the body and last for seconds or minutes. They can also involve sweating, headaches, palpitations or fainting, which can become worse with stress, alcohol and hot foods or drinks. Hot flushes are harmless, but can cause embarrassment, sleep disruption and anxiety. Some women may experience up to 10 or more per day, for months or even years after their last period.
Night sweats cause mild to severe sweating that may disrupt sleep. However, not all women who experience hot flushes will get night sweats. The reverse is also true, in that not all women who get night sweats will necessarily experience hot flushes.
Vagina and bladder problems
It is common to experience vaginal dryness and alterations in bladder function. The skin within the vagina can lose its elasticity, which can make sex uncomfortable. It is also possible to experience a loss of bladder control, also know as urinary incontinence. This is because the pelvic floor muscles, much like muscles in other parts of the body, become progressively weaker around the time of menopause. These muscles help control bladder and bowel function, therefore weakness can lead to urine leakage, difficulty holding wind and even prolapse (falling down) of internal organs.
Other symptoms can include:
- Light-headedness or dizziness;
- Joint and muscle aches and pains;
- Dry skin;
- Tiredness, and;
- Weight gain.
Methods for diagnosis
The diagnosis of menopause is usually based on age and the presence of signs and symptoms. As this can feel like, or be, a life-changing experience for some women, you may want to talk to your doctor about any concerns.
Blood tests are rarely used to diagnose menopause. Measuring certain hormone levels that can change with menopause, such as follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and oestrogen, is not always accurate. However, measuring thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) can help identify thyroid disease that causes hypothyroidism (which causes a high TSH), which can mimic symptoms of menopause. If hypothyroidism is present, then treatment of this condition can help to improve symptoms.
Types of treatment
Menopause does not require treatment; however, there are treatment options available to reduce the signs and symptoms associated with it. Your doctor will be able to provide advice on treatment options that suit your circumstances. These may include:
Self care for hot flushes
Cooling gels containing menthol may help to provide relief from your hot flushes. These products are available over the counter without a prescription.
Other non-medical management techniques include:
- Cold drinks;
- Applying a cold compress to the back of your neck;
- Using fans or an air conditioner to keep cool, particularly during hot weather;
- Wearing light, loose clothing at the time of a hot flush, and;
- Relaxation activities, such as yoga and meditation.
Some women report relief from hot flushes from taking natural therapies, such as evening primrose oil, red clover and black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa). However, scientific studies have not been able to produce consistent results that support the benefit and safety of these products. If taking natural therapies, it is important to always inform your doctor, to prevent any potential interactions with other medication you may be taking.
Self care for night sweats
Non-medical management techniques for night sweats include:
- Wearing light bedclothes;
- Using light, absorbent bed linen that can be taken off in layers;
- Developing a calm bedtime routine that encourages stress reduction;
- Using fans or an air conditioner to keep cool, particularly during hot weather, and;
- Relaxation activities, such as yoga and meditation.
Hormone replacement therapy
Many of the signs and symptoms associated with menopause are related to decreased oestrogen. To rectify this, hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which increases the body's oestrogen levels, may provide effective relief from symptoms. This involves either taking an oral medication, wearing a skin patch, using a vaginal ring or applying a skin cream or gel.
If you have had a hysterectomy to remove your uterus, you will only require oestrogen. However, if your uterus is still intact, then progesterone is prescribed together with oestrogen to reduce the risk of uterine cancer.
HRT has been proven to significantly reduce menopausal symptoms for most women. It is considered to be the most effective treatment for hot flushes and night sweats and can reduce the severity and frequency of hot flushes.
The risks of HRT depend mainly on your personal circumstances, medical history and lifestyle. Risks are considered to increase with age, long-term use and oral forms of HRT (i.e. taken by mouth), and include issues such as a small increase in breast cancer (following the use of HRT that combines both progesterone and oestrogen), blood clots and stroke.
If HRT is not an option due to personal or medical factors, other non-hormonal medications have been shown to reduce discomfort associated with hot flushes. These include certain medications that are more commonly prescribed for depression (antidepressants) and high blood pressure (antihypertensives).
After menopause, you have an increased risk of developing certain medical conditions, including:
As your oestrogen levels decrease during menopause, your risk of heart disease increases. To help avoid this, it is important to eat a healthy balanced diet with lots of fruit and vegetables. It is also important to maintain a healthy body weight and monitor your cholesterol and blood pressure to ensure they are at healthy levels.
Osteoporosis is a condition that causes your bones to weaken and become brittle, which can lead to an increase in bone fractures. An increase in the risk of osteoporosis occurs in the first few years after menopause, when bone density may be lost at a rapid rate. This can lead to fractures, which commonly occur in the wrists, hips and spine. These risks can be dramatically reduced with regular exercise and a healthy diet.
Occasionally, medication to improve bone strength can be prescribed to limit further bone loss. HRT used to treat symptoms of menopause can also help to prevent osteoporosis. However, contrary to international menopause guidelines, Australian authorities do not support the use of HRT solely for preventing or treating osteoporosis.
Urinary incontinence is the loss of bladder control that results in unintended urine leakage. Incontinence in menopausal women is treated by:
Menopause is a natural process of ageing. Some women are largely unaffected, while others may have severe or prolonged symptoms. Unfortunately, it is difficult to predict who will develop symptoms, or the severity and duration of symptoms.
Treatments can improve quality of life in those experiencing problematic symptoms. In addition, good eating habits and regular exercise can also help reduce the health risks associated with menopause.