The Start of Menopause Is Called Perimenopause
Perimenopause is what I thought was menopause – it’s that time when your periods become erratic or longer or heavier or shorter or spottier. Menopause is the end of your period and is official 12 months after your last period.
During perimenopause, you might start to experience hot flashes, mood changes, skin problems, loss of libido, vaginal dryness, fatigue, insomnia, depression and all the other delights caused by diminishing estrogen.
Menopause is the stage when all menstruation has ceased for at least 12 months.
As an aside, I had a small bleed after two years without any menstruation. I made an appointment with my doctor as any bleeding after a year of being period-free should be investigated.
My doctor sent me to the hospital for a (painless) sonograph scan, and luckily nothing sinister was found. My scary bleed was just a stray period, but it meant I had to start counting for another 12 months before I could once more assume I was in full menopause.
When I was young and trying to ignore the conversations my older female relatives were having, as well as assuming it was something that happened to old women, I never gave a second’s thought to the question, "How long does menopause last?"
What’s a ‘Normal’ Timeframe?
Some women are lucky and experience symptoms for only a few months, while most endure between one and five years. But some unfortunate women experience ongoing menopause symptoms well into their 60s.
So what is a “normal” menopause? Well, it’s incredibly difficult to define since some doctors will quote a start in the over 40s with symptoms lasting two years as the norm, while others think early 50s and five years is normal. It’s not uncommon to hear that more and more doctors believe it’s normal to start in your 30s.
Apparently, most women are completely through menopause and are infertile by the age of 55.
The Stages of Menopause
A recent study carried out by US researchers found that some women experienced vasomotor symptoms (VMS) including hot flashes and night sweats for more than a decade. The study followed over 1,000 women, who were aged between 42 and 52 at the start of the study, for more than 17 years.
The average length of symptoms proved to be just over seven years for more than half of the women – slightly above the previously held belief that the average is five years – and African-American women proved more likely to experience symptoms for more than ten years.
Most women experienced symptoms for 4.5 years after their last menstrual period.
What’s a ‘Normal’ Timeframe?
I have to say that among my group of friends I have not met a single person that fits any “normal” pattern. We have all had highly individual experiences, and responses to treatment so don’t feel anxious if you have been experiencing menopausal symptoms for years, and the darn thing shows no signs of abating.
It may help to talk about your experience. If you are too embarrassed to discuss it with friends or relatives, you could turn to online chat rooms and message boards where you are bound to find someone else experiencing similar symptoms along with a similar time frame to you. Just “talking” about it to new online friends may help you feel less anxious and alone.
Coping With Ongoing Symptoms
Concentrate your efforts on finding what works for easing the symptoms that bother you most to make the experience less intrusive into your life.
Consider Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)
Nobody will give you a medal for enduring years of discomfort and misery. There are lots of myths surrounding hormone replacement therapy, so make an appointment to discuss your options with your doctor.
Even if you have tried (and failed) previously with HRT, it’s worth checking if there might be another combination of estrogen or progesterone or both together which helps, or maybe think about exploring how the hormones are delivered into your system. You can get it in tablet form, patches, implants or in a topical form.
Make sure you stay in contact with your healthcare team and don’t panic if the first few times you discontinue medication your symptoms return.
In the end, I had forgotten to renew my repeat prescription, and it was when I ran out of tablets that I found my symptoms had dwindled to the point I could cope without them.
I did return to my doctor when I found that the most troublesome symptoms were affecting my love life with my husband and she recommended a topical approach, offering estrogen hormone pessaries which reduced vaginal dryness and other issues.
Natural Solutions for Menopause Symptoms
Still not for you? There are a few natural solutions for a couple of the more common menopause issues.
Hot flashes? Carry a hand-held fan and wear layers of natural fibers that you can peel off when things get sweaty. Anticipate flashpoints (excuse the pun!) and if you know you are likely to get hot under the collar at a wedding or recital, makes sure you got prepared with cool layers and sat near an exit or window in case things get too hot to handle.
Is insomnia your problem? Avoid using a smartphone, tablet, laptop or television screens in bed or even just before bedtime. Research shows the artificial light from these screens can trick your body into thinking it’s daytime. And ensure you get regular exercise. Go for a daily walk or build more exercise into your daily routine. Be careful not to become exhausted though – this in itself can cause sleep issues.
Or maybe you are fed up with years of teenage-style acne or other skin problems. Treat yourself to some new makeup and skincare products more suitable for your “new” skin.
We've All Heard These Menopause Myths Before
Positive thinking can help too. Remind yourself that this is a natural part of every woman’s life cycle and try not to dwell too much on the negative aspects or minor symptoms.
It might help to avoid thinking, “What is wrong with me,” and focusing on the plus sides like being able to wear white trousers whenever you want once you are in the menopause stage!
Having said all that if symptoms are making you miserable, stressed or depressed – seek help!