Clinical Review

Knowledge gaps and challenges in care for menopausal women

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The lack of discussion in society, and the lack of clinician knowledge around the menopausal transition and its overall effects for women, result in too many women not feeling empowered to seek help for and address their disruptive symptoms



The transition to menopause begins with ovarian fluctuation and hormonal changes, often beginning before significant changes in menstruation. Reproductive aging with loss of follicular activity progresses over a wide age range (42 to 58 years) with an average onset at approximately age 47, ranging from 4 to 8 years. Although most women have heard about menopause, defined as 12 months after the last period, they often lack understanding about perimenopause or that the menopausal transition usually begins 5 years before menopause.1

Perimenopause, defined as early and late menopause transition stages, may be viewed as a window of potential vulnerability for women who develop or have worsening menstrual-related mood disorders. Over time, hormonal fluctuations often lead to menstrual cycle irregularity (either shorter or longer). Changes occurring during perimenopause may be confusing as it may not be clear whether symptoms are related to menopause, aging, or stress. Often not recognized or treated adequately, perimenopausal symptoms may be challenging to navigate for both women and clinicians.

The perimenopausal process is often even more confusing for women with early menopause—whether due to bilateral oophorectomy, chemotherapy or radiation therapy, genetics, or an autoimmune process—because of lack of recognition that an early menopausal transition is occurring or what solutions are available for symptoms. While there is support in the workplace for women during pregnancy and breastfeeding, there remains little support or recognition for the oft challenging perimenopausal transition leading to menopause.

Perimenopause: Common symptoms and treatments

Symptoms may be related to either estrogen level deficiency or excess during perimenopause, and these level changes may even occur within the same cycle.

Cyclic breast tenderness may develop, worsened by caffeine or high salt intake (which can be potentially improved, although without clinical trial evidence, with decreased caffeine or a trial of evening primrose oil or vitamin E).

Changes in menstrual flow and frequency of menses are typical. Flow may be lighter or heavier, longer or shorter, and there may be cycle variability, missed menses, or midcycle spotting.2 Bleeding may be heavy, with or without cramping. In addition to imaging with vaginal ultrasonography or hysteroscopy to identify structural issues, symptoms may be managed with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), hormonal therapy (HT) with short hormone-free interval contraceptives, oral progestogens, or progestin intrauterine systems. Newer medical treatments include antifibrinolytic drugs and selective progesterone-receptor modulators. Uterine ablation to decrease or stop bleeding is effective if there are no structural abnormalities, such as fibroids or polyps or the presence of adenomyosis, where glands will regrow into the endometrium after ablation. Endometrial biopsy is indicated for persistent abnormal uterine bleeding or those with risk factors such as chronic anovulation.

Worsening headaches or menstrual migraines may be triggered by hormonal changes, which may respond to NSAIDs; dihydroergotamine; triptans; the combination of aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine; or estrogen the week before menses. For women taking oral contraceptives (OCPs), adding estradiol the week before menses, or using the OCP continuously, may decrease headache frequency. These short-term prophylactic strategies during the perimenstrual time are often effective. If not, preventive therapy is available for women with frequent, severe headaches.

Mood complaints and poor sleep are independently associated with menstrual irregularity, and can lead to fatigue or anxiety, worsening premenstrual syndrome, or depressive moods. Sleep is disrupted premenstrually for up to one-third of women, and sleep disruption is particularly prevalent in those with premenstrual mood disorders and worsens during perimenopause.3

Reproductive hormones act on the neurotransmitter systems in the brain involved in mood regulation and emotion. The fluctuating hormones occurring during perimenopause may exacerbate pre-existing menstrual-related mood disorders. A subset of women experience depressive moods due to perimenopausal elevations in ovarian hormones.4 Others may exhibit increased mood sensitivity with the ovarian hormone withdrawal accompanying late menopause transition and early postmenopausal phase.5 There is significant comorbidity between premenstrual mood disorder (PMDD) and postpartum depression.6 During perimenopause and early menopause, clinicians should ask about prior hormonally-related depression (puberty, postpartum) and recognize that current or past premenstrual syndrome may worsen into a more severe premenstrual dysphoric disorder. Evidence-based treatments for PMDD include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs); either taken continuously or only during the luteal phase; drospirenone-containing oral contraceptives, often with shorter pill-free intervals; GnRH analogues with or without hormone add-back; and cognitive behavioral therapy.7 For women whose perimenopausal moods improve with HT or develop worsened mood sensitivity with ovarian hormone withdrawal, clinicians should recognize that mood may worsen when treatment is ceased.5

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