In this helpsheet you will find more information on the most common physical symptoms, why you get them — and some suggestions on effective treatments and coping strategies.
Your periods may come more frequently (e.g. every 24 days instead of every 28) or they may come later than they used to. You may have a light period that lasts only a few days, then the next month have very heavy bleeding.
In some cases your period may last a shorter amount of time, or go on and on for what feels like an eternity. You may skip a month, then go back to normal for several months, then skip two periods in a row.
Irregular periods are a very common symptom that affect every woman slightly differently. This happens because, in the initial phases of premature menopause, your hormones are erratic — and your periods are reacting to this instability.
Nevertheless, the type of irregularity you experience is a usually a tip-off to what is happening in your body:
Possibly one of the most upsetting clues that you’re in premature menopause is the inability to conceive. You may still be having your period and therefore assume everything is perfectly normal.
On the other hand you may be noticing irregular periods and assume there’s something else wrong with you and never think it’s menopause.
Many women learn that they’re in premature menopause when they go to their doctor or reproductive endocrinologist to determine why they’re not getting pregnant.
Usually when you first ask about infertility problems, your doctor gives you a test to determine baseline levels for follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH).
It’s the level of your FSH that typically indicates whether you are in menopause. This test (and others) is discussed on the Tests page as well as in our FAQs. We also recommend you visit our helpsheet on coping with your diagnosis on an emotional level.
The Resolve organization offer excellent support groups that connect women suffering from this particular issue. It is a great place to meet locally and share feelings and coping strategies with like-minded women.
Most people have heard of hot flashes and recognize them as the trademark symptom of menopause. About 75 to 85% of American women are estimated to get hot flashes when they’re in menopause (source). And where premature menopause is concerned, hot flashes tend to be even more prevalent.
Many studies indicate that if you go through natural menopause before age 52, you have an increased chance of having hot flashes. It’s even more common for women who have had their ovaries surgically removed — about 80 to 90% of these women typically get hot flashes.
Hot flashes usually start with a hot, prickly feeling in the middle of your back. A heat wave then rises to envelop your back, chest, neck, face and scalp. Your skin temperature can rise up to 8 degrees. Often if you touch your skin, it actually feels hot as though you’ve been out in the sun.
Your pulse shoots up and you start sweating as your body tries to cool itself down. Sometimes you get a flush — your face, neck and chest turn pink or even deep red. And very often, you suddenly shift from feeling incredibly hot and sweaty to feeling very chilled, even shivering. You may also get the nighttime version of hot flashes, night sweats.
Vaginal Dryness and Atrophy
When your estrogen levels drop, your vaginal tissues start drying and become less elastic. Sex becomes uncomfortable; you may be more prone to infections; your vagina is frequently itchy and easily irritated, and, on the emotional side, you may feel older.
Your vagina is usually very elastic, able to easily stretch for sex and childbirth. But as estrogen levels go down, your vaginal walls get thinner and lose some of their elasticity. Your vagina becomes dryer and takes longer to become lubricated. Finally, it may atrophy — becoming somewhat smaller in width and length.
If you experience a sudden drop in estrogen (as you do with surgical menopause), these vaginal symptoms might appear more suddenly than if you go through a natural premature menopause. Either way, though, it’s a very unpleasant side effect of going through menopause — and often very emotionally upsetting when you’re in your 20s or 30s.
You may find it takes longer and longer to get sexually aroused. Sexual stimulation that you used to enjoy may become unpleasant. Intercourse can be very uncomfortable, even painful. In a worst case scenario, your vagina may even tear during intercourse.
All in all, sex may become less and less pleasurable — making you feel even worse about being in premature menopause. I remember I began thinking that, at the not-so-ripe age of 38, my days of enjoying sex were over — and was very glad when I learned that I was wrong.
That’s the good news where vaginal dryness is concerned: it is one of the most treatable symptoms of menopause — and it’s very often completely reversible.
Bladder Control Problems
You may have noticed that you have to urinate more frequently or with more urgency, or you may have urinary stress incontinence (little leaks when you exert yourself).
Again, this is a function of lower-than-normal estrogen levels. Your bladder and urethra are formed from the same tissues as your vagina when you’re a developing embryo. So, just like your vagina loses muscular tone and elasticity when estrogen production lags, your lower urinary tract does as well.
The lining of your urethra becomes thinner, and the surrounding muscles become weaker. As a result, when you place stress on your bladder — through coughing, sneezing, laughing, or strenuous exercising, you many release a tiny bit of urine. And it is usually only a tiny amount, so there’s no need to imagine a real disaster.
If you’re experiencing severe urinary incontinence, though, do see a doctor. A small degree of bladder control difficulty is common in the early stages of menopause, but a greater degree of difficulty can be indicative of another problem — one that may require drugs or even surgery.
If it’s mild, however, chances are it’s connected with your depleted estrogen. Even so, though, it’s probably wise to check with your doctor to be sure there is no other cause.
Frequent urination may be a sign of bladder infection or diabetes, for example. All in all, it’s a good idea just to be sure that what you’re experiencing is just another sign of menopause and not something else.
If you’re waking up a lot at night, tossing and turning, and generally suffering with insomnia, it might be connected with menopause.
When you begin going through menopause, you may find that your sleep is less and less restful — when you sleep at all. In the past, doctors believed that interrupted sleep was a consequence of night sweats, but recent studies indicate that you can also have problems with sleep that aren’t connected to hot flashes.
Typically, the frequency of insomnia doubles from the amount you may have had before you entered premature menopause. And research also indicates that women begin to experience restless sleep as many as five to seven years before entering menopause. Again, though, the problem is recognizing that the insomnia you’re suffering from has its roots in changes in your hormone levels.
It’s a frightening sensation — one that may happen at the same time as a hot flash or by itself: for no obvious reason, your heart suddenly starts pounding, racing faster and faster. You can be sitting calmly, or lying in bed just before going to sleep and it comes out of nowhere.
Sometimes it makes you so nervous, it can blow up in to a full-fledged panic attack. And if you don’t know that you’re going through premature menopause and that palpitations are often a sign of menopause, you can think there’s something seriously wrong with you.
But palpitations are another not-so-fun sign of menopause — and one that many women experience. Do keep in mind though: they may signal something else though — such as hyperthyroidism or mitral valve prolapse — so don’t automatically write off palpitations as a sign of premature menopause. Talk to your doctor to rule out any other, possibly more serious, conditions.
If you get a clean bill of health, there’s a good chance that the palpitations are connected with your premature menopause. This is one of those symptoms, though, that some doctors don’t associate with menopause, so don’t be surprised if your doctor tells you that it must be stress (that catch-all condition) causing your heart troubles. If you’ve had palpitations in the past, they may get worse when you begin going through menopause.
Weight gain (specifically a thickening in your middle) is another sign of changing hormones. While a number of books and doctors claim that menopause has nothing to do with weight gain — that weight gain occurs in menopausal women because they’re older and their metabolism is slowing down — other studies indicate that hormone levels are tied to weight gain and redistribution of fat.
This makes sense since, when you’re going through premature menopause, you’re not middle-aged — so what you’re getting isn’t a typical middle-aged ‘spread’. It’s menopause spread, for lack of a better term.
According to some studies, this occurs for several reasons: first, your progesterone levels are decreasing — and progesterone increases your metabolic rate. So with lower progesterone levels, you have a slower metabolic rate.
Second, estrogen is produced and stored in fat cells. So as your estrogen levels drop, your body is trying to increase its estrogen by upping its fat cells.
Finally, with a drop in female hormones, your body starts mimicking male fat distribution — an apple shape rather than a pear. In other words, you put more weight on in your abdomen than in the past. This accounts for the mysterious loss of definition around your waistline.
Weight gain and redistribution of fat is one of those signs of premature menopause that is very easy to overlook. Since it happens over a period of time, you might not notice your body shape changing. But if you haven’t changed your eating or exercise habits and you’ve been noticing a new fatter you — chances are it’s related to your hormones.
Changes in your Skin: Wrinkling and Loss of Muscle Tone
When your estrogen levels drop, your collagen production usually slows down as well. And, as you’ve probably heard, collagen has a role in keeping our skin toned, fresh-looking and resilient. So when you start running low on collagen, it shows in your skin. It gets thinner, drier, flakier and less youthful-looking.
This is another of those symptoms of menopause that makes you feel older before your time — and, in this case, it’s clear why. You may look a little older than you used to. Worst, this sign often shows up early in menopause. Like bone loss, which occurs rapidly in the first few years of menopause, collagen loss is most rapid at the beginning of menopause as well.
According to studies, premature menopause leads to more rapid bone loss than menopause that occurs at the normal age — so it’s possible that premature menopause also leads to more rapid collagen loss. The bottom line is, well, more lines on your face… and before you expected them.
During the early stages of menopause, you may find that you’re getting more — and worse — headaches. This is often caused by your dropping estrogen levels. Many women with regular menstrual cycles get headaches just before their periods or at ovulation (source). These headaches, sometimes called “menstrual migraines” occur when estrogen levels plunge during the menstrual cycle.
So, when your body begins slowing down its production of estrogen due to premature menopause, you may wind up getting one of these hormonally-induced headaches. This also can happen when your progesterone levels are too high in relation to your estrogen levels — a common hormone scenario for women at the beginning of menopause. Generally, these headaches diminish once your hormone levels stabilize.
Other Physical Signs You May Notice
The following symptoms are less obvious and less common, but still are often signs of premature menopause: