Most women (60 to 80 percent) only experience minor symptoms during their menopause years. Most commonly they will experience irregular periods, hot flashes and then simply stop menstruating. About 10 to 20 percent experience no symptoms and the remaining group of 10 to 20 percent experience symptoms which cause major annoyance. Those annoying symptoms range from severe hot flashes, vaginal dryness, low libido, joint pain, weight gain, sleep disorders and headaches. Typically those symptoms tend to be more prominent in the years leading up to menopause (perimenopause phase) when periods become irregular than after they stop (postmenopause). If this all sounds too depressing, it is worth remembering that female humans are the only species in the animal kingdom which live beyond their reproductive years. And even then, it is only in the last century that we women in the western world have survived regularly past menopause!
In depth article: How menopause effects the body.
How Long Do Symptoms Last?
Research shows that symptoms of menopause usually last on average 4 years.
Researchers reviewed 410 studies to determine the duration of hot flashes and night sweats in menopausal women. They found that these symptoms tend to peak one year after the woman's last menstrual period but continued for up to 4 years in 50 percent of women.
Top 15 Menopause Symptoms
Hot Flashes Followed By Hot Flushes
75 percent of women experience hot flashes during menopause and this rises to 95 percent of women who have had a surgical induced menopause, such as a hysterectomy. A hot flash is a sudden intense wave of heat which rises from the chest up through the neck and head and can last several minutes. Hot flashes are usually accompanied by perspiration. When a hot flash produces visible redness it is known as a hot flush. Hot flashes are a natural sign of decreasing amounts of the hormone estrogen being produced by the body. If you are suffering from hot flashes, environmental triggers to avoid are: warm stuffy rooms, stress, caffeine, alcohol, spicy food, cigarettes and tight clothing. Studies show that women with excess weight are more prone to hot flashes in both severity and frequency. This is one reason why experts recommend even normal weight women to lose 5 to 10 pounds before menopause, particularly as many women gain 5 to 15 pounds during menopause. If you feel you may be too young to experience symptoms, check our article on menopause testing and diagnosis.
Night sweats are more intense hot flashes which typically occur at night. Also known as nocturnal hyperhydrosis, night sweats can cause excessive sweating and restless sleep leading to fatigue and mood swings. Sleeping in a cold room and wearing socks to bed can help to reduce the severity of attacks (wearing socks helps to regulate body temperature). Additionally many women find estrogen replacement therapy (ERT) assists with this problem.
When a woman's periods stop for 12 consecutive months, she has officially reached menopause. However, in the perimenopause years prior to this event, menstruation may have become irregular. There may even be missed periods for some months, shorter or longer in cycles, or heavier or lighter in bleeds. This is a response to the change in hormone balance in the body. Outside of menopause there are other causes of irregular periods. These include menorrhagia, amenorrhea and dysmenorrhea.
The tissue which lines the vagina wall is the highly sensitive to estrogen changes. During menopause the vaginal lining becomes thinner, paler and flatter which can cause it to become dry and easily torn. Also known as vaginal atrophy, atrophic changes occur in 30 percent of early post-menopausal women. This can make sexual intercourse painful, as well as making a woman more prone to urinary tract infections. Local estrogen treatments can be helpful in reducing vaginal dryness (that is, estrogen creams and vaginal tablets).
Most women will be familiar with mood swings long before they approach their menopause years. Aggravated by hormone fluctuations, mood swings are a common symptom of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). During perimenopause and menopause, those mood swings may become more severe and last for weeks at a time, rather than just days. Taking a B-complex vitamin combined with folic acid daily may help to alleviate some of the worst effects (PMS treatment). Where chronic menopause depression or severe moods are suspected, consult your doctor for possible treatment options, it could be an indication of premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD).
Reduced interest in sexual intercourse or a low libido in menopause is very common. Many factors are at play, physical as well as emotional. Painful intercourse caused by vaginal dryness will naturally reduce a woman’s desire for intercourse. Additionally, many women reportedly feel less attractive in their own skin as well as being less attracted to their partner. Local HRT treatments may help with the vaginal dryness and kegels exercise can help with toning the pelvic floor muscles.
Women entering menopause may experience more sleepless nights than usual. This can partly be due to night sweats but there is also some research which indicates that menopausal hormone fluctuations may be linked to insomnia. Lack of sleep can lead to fatigue, irritability, loss of memory and concentration issues.
Pre- and postmenopause women often complain of joint pain. This typically involves pain and stiffness of the hands, hips, shoulders, knees and/or lower back and is more acute in the morning. (For a complete list of causes read, why do I ache all over?). Falling estrogen levels are yet again considered the culprit, especially as estrogen has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. This may be particularly severe for women already suffering from symptoms of fibromyalgia. Less estrogen consequently can make women more sensitive to pain. Traditional pain relief techniques used for treating osteoarthritis may be applied in this instance: massage, acupuncture, transcutaneous nerve stimulation, exercise and weight loss. Hormone replacement therapy may also help relieve symptoms.
Weight gain during menopause: Typically a woman can gain between 10 and 15 pounds during her perimenopause years, approximately a pound per year. Studies show that hormones changes in the lead up to menopause can cause a woman's body to become more pear shaped. That is fat accumulates around the stomach rather than the hips or bottom. A woman's Basal Metabolic Rate also decreases, that is the rate at which she burns calories. As a result she needs to fight harder just to stay in the same place, weight-wise. There has been some discussion about HRT causing weight gain, but there is no evidence to support this. HRT may cause water retention and bloating but this usually subsides after a few weeks.
Increase in Allergies
Many allergies are linked or impacted by hormone fluctuations and imbalances. This is why for example a woman is more prone to developing an allergy after childbirth when hormones are disturbed. Hormone fluctuations can also disturb the balance of the body's immune system, making a woman more vulnerable to all sorts of conditions, allergies included.
Some women notice hair loss during menopause. Thinning hair is often related to age, and can start after the age of 40. However hormones fluctuations can also trigger hair loss. Most women who experience this problem benefit from vitamins such as iron and Biotin Forte and a healthy balanced diet. Any hair loss that is accompanied by ill health should be checked by a doctor.
A degenerative bone disorder, osteoporosis occurs where there is weakening and thinning of the bone. This can result in more bone fractures. Estrogen is involved in the process of bones absorbing calcium, so a drop in estrogen levels directly affects bone strength. Many women choose to monitor this after menopause by a bone density test or DEXA scan (Medicare usually cover this cost). Osteoporosis in women can be treated with Calcium and vitamin D supplements, estrogen therapy and weight bearing exercises.
Breast soreness and tenderness is common to women in many stages of their life. It is one of the most common pregnancy symptoms. It also occurs at menstruation, while breastfeeding and menopause. Generally it is nothing to worry about unless breasts develop a lump or nipple discharge. Any serious irregularities should be discussed with a doctor as soon as possible to rule out breast cancer. As we become older it is important to try and carry out a breast self-examination regularly.
The so called 'menstrual migraines' which can occur during menstruation, but which may also occur at other stages like pregnancy and menopause. Triggered by estrogen fluctuations, headaches are a common symptom of menopause.
Think you are too young for all these symptoms?
Read about premature menopause - the signs and risk factors.
Menopause can trigger changes in the skin which may become dry and itchy. Most commonly it begins in the t-zone on the face and elbows before extending to the rest of the body (even the nails). Estrogen is a key component in collagen production, which may partly explain this symptom. See more menopause skin problems.