This article was previously published on Atrium Health's Daily Dose
Women's health depends on a broader discussion of this important journey, and through understanding how it works, we can better support those we love.
Menopause is a common experience for many women across the world. Yet for most women, the intense physical, mental and emotional journey to menopause remains incredibly personal and can feel confusing, lonely and even isolating.
Dr. Allison Bell, an OB-GYN at Atrium Health Women's Care OB-GYN, wants to affirm women's awareness that yes, menopause is a personal journey, and women do not have to walk the challenging path alone.
"OB-GYNs partner with women to identify how their bodies are uniquely responding to menopause and prescribe treatment accordingly," says Bell. "It's important that I work with my patients to provide advice and support through this time."
No longer a taboo
Many women imagine or know menopause to be a series of hot flashes, mood swings, and eventually, the end of menstruation (hurrah!). But there's a much more specific definition of menopause, one that helps Bell identify how to best serve her patients: menopause occurs when a woman hasn't had a period for one full year.
Until they've officially entered menopause, women are in perimenopause, a transition cycle during which women's estrogen levels fluctuate. During this phase, which can last for months or years, women experience varying degrees of symptoms: hot flashes, night sweats, mood changes, and changes in their vaginal region, such as increased dryness. Perimenopause is wildly unpredictable. (Periods may become heavier and more frequent or they can spread out and diminish.)
On average, women in the U.S. experience menopause between the ages of 51 and 52. That means that perimenopause typically occurs between the ages of 47 and 50.
Identifying what is happening: Are you perimenopausal?
Many women spend a lot of money testing their hormones and saliva to identify whether they're menopausal, or about to experience symptoms of menopause. Such tests have not been validated by the medical community at large. For Bell, identifying whether a woman is menopausal is more of an art.
"Every woman's body is unique, and their journey through menopause is equally so," says Bell. "Therefore, what's most important is for women to establish a relationship with their OB-GYN that involves overall care, such as routine cervical cancer screening, regular breast exams, and checks for abnormal bleeding and other symptoms of serious issues."
Regular care helps OB-GYNs better understand their patients' overall health, and therefore identify whether or not they're premenopausal.
Treatment for menopausal symptoms
Women with menopausal symptoms might use hormone therapy to diminish the side effects they're experiencing. And while this may be a good treatment for some, it's not appropriate for every woman's health. The best thing a woman can do is to ask her doctor which treatment is best for her body. Natural supplements might also be an option, though not much data supports their effectiveness, says Bell. Vaginal estrogen provides focused treatment for vaginal symptoms. Ultimately, a conversation between doctor and patient can help determine how perimenopause should be treated.
Bell also recommends taking practical action.
"Purchase a fan for the bedroom; buy bedding and sleepwear that breathes; use coconut oil as a vaginal lubricant. Simple actions like these can help keep women comfortable and away from what might be costly, ineffective treatments."
Bell knows for sure that treating menopausal symptoms should not cost thousands of dollars nor make women dependent on a lot of medications.
Talk to one another
Bell is a huge proponent of women talking to each other during perimenopause and menopause, and of society taking a more public look at this journey that women take. It's important that we provide support to women as they go through this natural transition.
We can be understanding and patient when we treat, listen to, and help women who are experiencing perimenopause or menopause," Bell says. "While natural, the transition is a challenging one, and one that should be met by our community."