Let’s Not Grin and Bear It

I’m an optimist by nature.

And that’s a good thing. I saw an article this week headlined “Women are not getting treated for menopausal symptoms.” It outlines the research behind the statement, research done in Australia but believed to be indicative of the reality elsewhere, including the U.S. and the U.K.

The researchers surveyed nearly 1,500 women who were 40 to 65 years old. Some of the results:

  • Up to half experience “vasomotor symptoms,” which include hot flashes and night sweats.
  • Seventeen percent said their vasomotor symptoms were moderate to severe.
  • Eighteen percent reported moderate to severe sexual symptoms.
  • Only 11 percent of respondents said they were using any hormone therapy.
  • Less than one percent were using non-hormone therapy.

This is, sadly, in line with other research I’ve seen over the past few years. Too many of us are taken by surprise by menopause symptoms. Too many of us expect the symptoms to pass in a month or two, when in actuality they may last for years. Too many of us suffer in silence (in one study, only 14 percent of men and women over age 40 had talked to their doctors about sexual health). And too many of our doctors lack either the information or the confidence to help us navigate these years.

And there are options available. The initial “alarming” findings from the Women’s Health Initiative regarding systemic hormone therapy have been largely disproved, put into a broader context of the trade-offs between quality of life and symptom management. The North American Menopause Society points out that breast cancer risk associated with systemic hormones doesn’t usually rise until “after 5 years with estrogen-progestogen therapy or after 7 years with estrogen alone”—which is likely long enough to weather the worst of menopause symptoms.

Localized hormones are an option for some symptoms; because they’re applied directly in the vagina, very little is circulated throughout the body. That limits or eliminates the risk of side effects, while still offering benefits in maintaining or restoring vaginal tissues.

New nonhormonal options for menopausal symptoms are also available, approved by the FDA. Osphena is a “selective estrogen receptor modulator” (SERM) that targets the vagina and uterine lining. Duavee is another medication in the SERM category that can be effective for hot flashes, with potential benefits for bone density. Brisdelle is an antidepressant that’s been prepared at a dosage that can help with hot flashes while minimizing its occasional side effects of weight gain and loss of libido.

Those are all prescription options, and there are plenty of steps women can take on their own, as well. That’s really our entire message, but if you’re looking for a place to start, these are the products women find most immediately helpful:

  • Lubricants make uncomfortable sex immediately more comfortable.
  • Moisturizers have longer-lasting effects, and can be used with lubricants to counter vaginal dryness.
  • Vibrators, as I tell women in my practice, are the reading glasses for diminished genital sensation.
  • And Kegel exercise tools help women keep their pelvic floors in shape, which is good not only for sexual response but for managing incontinence.

See how many things we can do? We don’t need to “grin and bear it,” as researcher Dr. Susan R. Davis, from the Monash University in Melbourne, fears we think. Step one is to believe—share some of my optimism!—that something can be done.

And then learn what you can, talk to your health care provider about your history, symptoms, preferences, and risks. Feel free to experiment until you find some options that make you smile.

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