I'm Too Young for This!
When A Woman Hits Menopause
Premature ovarian failure (POF), also called premature menopause, affects about one in every 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 29, and one in every 100 women between the ages of 30-39. The early depletion of follicles (precursor of eggs) and cessation of menstruation before the age of 35 are the hallmarks of this condition which can strike a woman at any time in her life. It can happen before she has had a chance to have a family or after she has had children. No matter when it occurs, it can be devastating and a woman may be plagued with unanswered questions to her infertility issues.
What Causes POF
For many women, the cause of POF is unknown; however, there are some conditions which are known to be causes of premature menopause. Autoimmune disorders including diabetes type 1, lupus, autoimmune hypothyroidism and autoimmune Addison's disease are all associated with POF. Glandular deficiencies in the thyroid, pituitary and adrenal glands can also be a cause. Genetics, particularly related to the X chromosome, play a part in POF. A woman needs two functioning X chromosomes for normal reproduction. When one is not normal then ovarian function is affected. Turner syndrome, a case where one of the two X-chromosomes is missing, is a genetic condition which is known to cause POF. Viral infections, eating disorders, sexually transmitted diseases and epilepsy put a woman at higher risk for the condition.
What, Exactly, Is Premature Ovarian Failure?
In POF, the levels of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) levels are elevated as they are during perimenopause. The FSH levels rise as a result of eggs not maturing and therefore not producing estrogen, which signals the hypothalamus to stop producing follicle stimulating hormone. The continued production of FSH without the follicles to produce eggs causes the menstrual cycle to stop. In a woman over the age of 40, this would be considered the beginning of menopause; however in a woman with POF, this happens much earlier - hence the title premature menopause.
Just Like The Real Thing
A woman with premature ovarian failure may still have follicles but they may be depleted or dysfunctional. She may still get her period but it will be irregular - a sign of POF. Along with irregular periods a woman will experience the symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes, night sweats, and decreased sexual drive, pain during sex and vaginal dryness as well as irritability. Again, some women may continue to have normal periods with no symptoms at all. It is the measuring of the FSH levels which determines POF.
There's Help and Hope
If you are too young to be going through menopause and yet are experiencing these symptoms, check with your doctor for diagnosis and treatment. There are ways to address infertility from POF with such methods as using donor eggs, undergoing fertility treatments or exploring adoption options. None of the treatments have proven to be able to restore fertility, but they are used. There has been a measure of success with HRT and some women have been able to conceive and bear a child despite POF.