A Patient Journey for Menopause
The menopause – the time during which a woman’s body changes in such a way that she stops getting periods and becomes unable to get pregnant through natural means – is a normal part of the development of nearly all women. It can, nevertheless, be very difficult to go through. It is important for women to be aware of what to expect when going through the menopause, and to know what symptoms are normal and which might be good cause for visiting a doctor.
Most women will go through the menopause aged between 45 and 55 – the average age at which women in the UK reach the menopause is 51 . Some women do, though, go through the menopause early – roughly 1% of women experience it before they are 40 . Most women will experience a number of menopausal symptoms in addition to the cessation of periods; in fact, most women will begin to experience such symptoms months or years before their last period. These symptoms include hot flushes and night sweats, mood changes and anxiety, vaginal dryness an discomfort during sex, loss of libido, difficulty sleeping, hair thinning, and difficulty with memory or concentration.
These symptoms, either alone or in combination with each other, can be distressing. You should see a doctor if you find that your symptoms are preventing you from performing everyday tasks, if they are causing you significant physical discomfort, or if you think the menopause is having an effect on your psychological wellbeing. You should certainly see a doctor if you start noting menopausal symptoms before you are 45, if any non-standard symptoms arise, such as unusual pains or sensations, or if any of your symptoms continue into postmenopause. It is also worth seeing your doctor if you want to explore treatment options, or if there are any complicating factors or side-effects with treatments you are already undergoing.
A doctor will ask you about your medical history, including any menopausal symptoms, and about your menstrual cycle, including when you had your last period. Usually, your GP will be able to make a diagnosis of the menopause based on such a discussion of symptoms. In the case of women going through the menopause early, blood tests may also be taken in order to establish hormone levels.
If your symptoms are severe or having an effect on your day-to-day capabilities, your doctor may recommend treatments to relieve your symptoms. One common set of treatments is hormone replacement therapy (HRT) – tablets, skin patches, and other treatments that work to replace oestrogen an ease menopausal symptoms (it should be noted that HRT is inappropriate for a number of women, including those with a history of breast, ovarian, or womb cancer). There are also a number of creams and ointments available for certain symptoms like vaginal dryness; and talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may help with mood- and emotion-related symptoms. A number of self-help measures can also be effective – from taking exercise and eating a healthy diet to taking special care with your clothing and bedding.
talkhealth happily recommends the British Menopause Society for further information and care. You can also find support from the talkhealth community in our menopause forum, a dedicated subsection of the talkwomen's health forum.