Understanding the menopause: its signs, symptoms and stages

Mood swings, hot flushes, irregular periods, sleep problems?

Mood swings, hot flushes, irregular periods, sleep problems? Then you could be suffering the classic symptoms of the menopause. Luckily, help is available.

The average age for a Caucasian woman to hit the menopause is 51 and in Afro-Caribbean women it tends to be a bit later. An early menopause generally occurs when you’re under the age of 40. But what is the menopause, and how can you get help and treatment for its symptoms?

Read on to find out more about the menopause, and how our specialists in Kent can help.

The menopause explained

The menopause happens when your menstrual period stops permanently, or when you’re no longer able to become pregnant naturally. It’s a fascinating fact that only three species of female live beyond their reproductive potential – humans, killer whales and pilot whales.

What’s the official definition of menopause?

The definition of menopause is when your periods have stopped for more than a year, as it’s possible for them to stop for a while and then start again. Ovarian function declines gradually, so many symptoms start before your periods have completely stopped.

One of the common causes of symptoms is a change in the nature of your period, for example very heavy and irregular bleeding, as the menopause approaches. The Mirena coil has revolutionised management of women with this type of menopause symptom.

But why do women have problems? Isn’t the menopause just nature taking its course?

As women are living longer, they’re spending more time in the post-reproductive phase. As a result, women are more likely to suffer the consequences of loss of ovarian function including menopausal symptoms such as thinning of the skin and bones.

When will I go through the stages of menopause?

It’s impossible to say exactly when you’ll go through the stages of menopause. Although the age of girls starting their periods has got steadily younger since the start of the last century, the age of menopause has remained remarkably consistent.

If you started your period at an early age, it’s likely that you have a greater number of egg precursors in the ovaries.  As a result, you’ll tend to menstruate for longer and may go through the menopause later than most.

The average age to start is 51, and the stages of menopause can look like this:

Perimenopause: Periods become irregular but haven’t stopped. The average age to enter the perimenopause is 47 and, while you may experience symptoms, you can still get pregnant.

Menopause: Menopause is generally classed as the year after you have your last period. Symptoms such as mood swings and sleep problems are common during this time.

Postmenopause: If you’ve not had a period for a year, you’re past the menopause. Fortunately, symptoms of the menopause should reduce at this point for most women.

Signs and symptoms of menopause

Menopause symptoms typically include hot flushes (which some women describe as “tropical moments”), night sweats, poor sleep, loss of concentration, emotional ups and downs (also described as menopause “mood swings”) and sometimes joint pain.

The intermediate signs of menopause are loss of skin elasticity; the skin can become drier the vagina can become drier and the bladder can also be affected, resulting in a need to empty the bladder more frequently. There can be a long-term thinning of the bones resulting in osteoporosis (brittle bones) and osteopenia (when the bone density is reduced).

Weight gain can also be a menopause symptom, due to a slowed metabolism.

Is there help for my menopause symptoms?

The good news is that you don’t need to suffer in silence. There’s plenty of help available.

Some GP surgeries now have specially trained menopause nurses who could suggest very simple solutions to mild menopause symptoms. However, if you need a prescription or feel that your symptoms are severe, you should arrange to see your GP who can either treat you or refer you to a specialist. At Benenden Hospital, we can offer help for menopause symptoms.

What menopause treatments are available?

There are a range of menopause treatments, from Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) to the Mirena coil. A menopause specialist can help you choose the right treatment to help your menopause symptoms.

Treating menopause symptoms with HRT

HRT had a lot of bad press back in 2002, after a major study suggested links with increased risk of breast cancer and stroke. However, updated analysis of the original data and subsequent studies have shown that when an appropriate HRT is used in the correct setting the increased risks of serious problems, such as blood clots and breast cancer, are small. The benefits of HRT, often used as a menopause treatment, are generally felt to outweigh the risks.

‘Natural’ treatments for menopause symptoms

There are also non-pharmacological or natural ways to help tackle menopause symptoms, which some women say work for them. Here are a few popular menopause treatments:

  • Soya products are rich in isoflavones which are phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens are plant-based foods that can have an oestrogen-like effect on the body. Aside from soybeans, soy can be found in products such as tofu and soya milk
  • Red clover and black cohosh, available from health food shops, are also said to help, although to date there is no hard evidence to support this
  • There’s also bio-identical HRT which is tailored to the individual’s precise needs, but robust scientific evidence is rather limited

Which menopause treatment is right for me?

We can help you find the menopause treatment that’s best for your needs and lifestyle.

Can men have symptoms of menopause?

It’s not just women that suffer in their late forties and early fifties – so do men! There’s growing evidence that the andropause, or the manopause, does exist. Around this age men also experience a hormonal shift which can cause physical, emotional and cognitive changes.

How do I contact Benenden Hospital for help with the menopause?

To find out more about the menopause and gynaecology treatments we offer at our private hospital in Kent, contact our Private Patient Team by completing our online enquiry form or by calling us on 01580 363158.

Published on 10 February 2020