In some cases, the reason is clear: you’ve had your ovaries surgically removed, have a family history of early menopause, or had ovarian damage due to cancer treatments.
But sometimes the causes are less apparent and can leave you wondering: how did this happen to me?
Here, then, are the common causes of the various conditions that we often refer to as early menopause. This includes menopause induced by surgery and other medical treatments, but also ‘risk factors’ — things that may not directly induce an early menopause but do affect your level of risk.
Causes and Risk Factors of Premature Ovarian Failure (POF) / Premature Menopause
This is a common cause of premature ovarian failure. In fact, some research has shown that up to a third of the women with premature ovarian failure have it due to an autoimmune disorder.
When this happens, your body’s immune system mistakenly attacks itself. In effect, your body senses part of itself as an invader — so it sends out antibodies to destroy this perceived threat.
In the case of premature menopause, you may have antibodies to your own ovarian tissue, to your endometrium, or to one or more of the hormones regulating ovulation.
These antibodies attack your reproductive system, and may interfere with and ultimately destroy your ovarian function. If you have a family history of autoimmune disorders or have one yourself (such as thyroid disease, diabetes, or rheumatoid arthritis), this may be the cause for your premature menopause.
Some cases of hereditary premature menopause are caused by defects on an X chromosome. It’s a very complicated topic, but, briefly, here’s what happens:
Note that, on the flip side, some women enter premature menopause because they have three X chromosomes — which interferes with ovarian development as well.
Causes of Early Menopause due to Surgery
Oophorectomy and Total Hysterectomy
This is one of the most common causes of early menopause — and often one of the most difficult to deal with, since you are coping with the fallout from surgery as well as sudden menopause.
In this case, you experience premature menopause after removal of both of the ovaries (a bilateral oophorectomy) or removal of the uterus, cervix, both fallopian tubes, and both ovaries (a total hysterectomy with bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy).
Because both of your ovaries are removed, your estrogen and progesterone levels plunge, leading immediately to menopause. You may experience more intense symptoms than those who go into premature menopause spontaneously because of this sudden drop.
Technically speaking, you will not enter surgical menopause in cases where a hysterectomy is performed whilst leaving the ovaries intact and producing hormones. Nevertheless, hysterectomy and menopause are often discussed together. This is because, when the uterus is surgically removed, you will cease having your periods regardless of whether or not the ovaries still remain.
The reasons why hysterectomies are performed include fibroids, severe endometriosis, cancer and to correct uterine prolapse (where the uterus has fallen out of place).
Ovarian Damage Due to Other Surgical Procedures
Usually, as long as you have at least one ovary, you can continue producing hormones and shouldn’t go into premature menopause. In some cases, a hysterectomy is performed in which one or both ovaries are left intact. However subsequent to this one or both of them may fail — either immediately after surgery or up to a few years later.
This may happen when the ovary or ovaries are damaged or otherwise affected by such procedures as cyst removal or when the surgery damages blood vessels and so interferes with blood flow to the ovaries.
In this case, the follicles on the remaining ovary/ovaries slowly die out, resulting in menopause. Similarly, some women experience premature menopause after tubal ligation (getting your “tubes tied” as it’s commonly called). Again, this is a result of the surgery interfering with blood flow to the ovaries — which eventually causes ovarian failure.
Causes of Chemical Early Menopause
Radiation Therapy and/or Chemotherapy
Significant doses of radiation or chemotherapy (used to kill cancer cells) can, as a side effect, also damage the ovaries — resulting in premature menopause. In some cases — especially when you’ve received low dose/short term treatment, you may experience temporary menopause due to chemo or radiation therapy.
Your ovarian function may stop working regularly for a few months after treatment, but then return to normal after four months or so. But often, even when your periods return, you remain infertile.
Tamoxifen used to be prescribed after you were diagnosed for breast cancer — and, as with other forms of chemo, you would run a risk for premature menopause as a side effect. But recently doctors have begun prescribing Tamoxifen as a preventative measure to women with a high risk for breast cancer, since it cuts breast cancer rates by about 45 percent (source).
While the media has focused on the positive aspects of this drug (and there are many), there is an important potential side effect to Tamoxifen that hasn’t been played up a great deal: it can send you into premature menopause. Essentially, this happens because Tamoxifen ‘takes the place’ that estrogen would otherwise and therefore acts as an estrogen-blocker.
Other Causes / Risk Factors
Certain factors appear to predispose some women to early menopause:
Other Disorders that may Cause Menopausal Symptoms
It’s important to realize that you may have menopausal symptoms, but not be going through menopause or ovarian failure. Other disorders — many of which are treatable — can cause symptoms that overlap with those of menopause.
This is one of the reasons it’s very important to speak with your doctor and be tested to determine what is the cause of your symptoms. Among the other disorders that can cause symptoms similar to those of menopause are:
Both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism often cause symptoms that mimic those you get when your hormone levels drop. This is particularly true of hypothyroid — which can cause hair loss, weight gain, moodiness (the “blahs”), and amenorrhea — the stopping of your periods.
Hyperthyroid can cause palpitations and sweats (that may seem like either hot flashes or night sweats). In both cases, though, proper diagnosis and treatment will result in the reversal of symptoms.
This is a disease that is marked by overproduction of prolactin — the hormone that is responsible for milk production in your breasts. Often women with hyperprolactinemia also go through amenorrhea — the stopping of their periods.
However, hyperprolactinemia isn’t caused by ovarian failure and low production of estrogen.
One of the typical signs of hyperprolactinemia is galactorrhea — which is the technical name for milky discharge from the breasts.
To determine if this is the cause of stopped periods, typically a doctor will need to check your prolactin levels. Hyperprolactinemia is often treated with different drugs, such as Parlodel, which may result in the return of normal ovarian function.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
Also known as polycystic ovarian disease (PCOD) — this can cause skipped periods and a number of other symptoms, including excessive hair growth. This disorder is sometimes diagnosed by checking your hormones — as a high ratio of LH (luteinizing hormone) to FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) is often present. This disorder is also sometimes marked by a high level of androgens — testosterone and DHEA.
Pituitary and/or Hypothalamic Disorders
Often women with pituitary disorders (such as pituitary failure or pituitary tumors) go through amenorrhea. In this case, typically they do not have the typical symptoms that arise with low estrogen (hot flashes, etc.), but do find that their periods have stopped.
Usually, in this case, you will have normal or even low luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) levels, but may have elevated prolactin levels. You may need to get a scan to determine whether you have a tumor or lesion, which is typically treated through surgery or medication.
Some other causes of amenorrhea (stopped periods) include:
In the above cases, usually your doctor will be able to determine the cause of your symptoms through blood tests or giving you a “progesterone challenge” test — which can help determine why your periods have stopped. In the case of birth control pills you should be aware that it’s not uncommon to stop getting periods for up to six months after discontinuing the pill. However, if your periods don’t return after this time, this may not be related to the pill.
A Final Word
As we’ve discovered so far, ‘early menopause’ serves as a catch-all term for an extremely wide array of situations. What all these causes share, despite their differences, is their ability to induce menopause before the normal age. We’ve also seen that some conditions and lifestyle factors can mimic the symptoms of menopause (such as stopped periods). This underlines the importance of consulting your doctor to reach a diagnosis.