Premature Ovarian Failure: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Premature ovarian failure can be a very distressing condition for any woman who’s hoping to have children one day. But is premature ovarian failure the same thing as menopause? And what are the options for treatment? Let’s clear up the facts on premature ovarian failure, what causes it, and what your healthcare provider can do to help.

Premature Ovarian Failure: What is it?

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For most women, the ovaries pop out an egg on schedule once per cycle until menopause comes. However, for some women, the ovaries stop working properly well before age 40. The condition is called premature ovarian failure (also called primary ovarian insufficiency).

The ovaries are in charge of secreting two hormones over the course of the menstrual cycle: estrogen and progesterone. Levels of these hormones rise and fall over the course of your cycle. This helps mature an egg follicle for ovulation, prepare the endometrium for an egg to implant, and subsequently discard the endometrium to be shed out as a menstrual period.

If the ovaries don’t produce enough estrogen, they may not be able to produce mature eggs. With the ovaries not working properly, ovulation is disrupted, and menstrual periods become irregular. This means that the woman’s fertility drops off as it would be in menopause, but unlike menopause, premature ovarian failure can happen at any age.

What causes premature ovarian failure?

In many cases, doctors can’t identify a clear reason for why the ovaries stop working so early. However, there are some known risk factors associated with premature ovarian failure.

  • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy
  • Autoimmune diseases like hypothyroidism and diabetes
  • Genetics conditions like Turner syndrome and fragile X syndrome

Primary ovarian insufficiency symptoms

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Primary ovarian insufficiency is similar to menopause in that the ovaries shut down and hormone balance changes. Some women with ovarian failure notice the following symptoms, which also occur in natural menopause.

  • Hot flashes
  • Decreased ability to concentrate
  • Low sex drive
  • Irritability
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Pain during sexual intercourse

Is premature ovarian failure the same as menopause?

They may look similar at first, but premature ovarian failure isn’t the same thing as menopause. In menopause, the supply of quality follicles in the ovaries essentially runs out. Usually by a woman’s 40s or 50s, there aren’t enough eggs left to ovulate, and the menstrual cycle stops altogether. Menopause is a normal part of aging, and it’s not reversible.

On the other hand, women with premature ovarian failure still have all their follicles where they ought to be – they just aren’t ovulating them. In some rare cases, they are even able to start ovulating and having periods again, and can even get pregnant naturally.

What is the treatment for primary ovarian insufficiency?

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It is possible to treat the symptoms of premature ovarian failure by restoring normal hormone balance. This helps protect against the increased risk of heart problems and osteoporosis that goes along with low estrogen. Some common treatments for premature ovarian failure include Hormone Replacement Therapy and the oral contraceptive pill.

Ovarian dysfunction and infertility: Can I still get pregnant?

About 5 to 10% women with primary ovarian insufficiency do still conceive in their life, so there is a slight chance of becoming pregnant naturally. However, it’s not possible to predict who this will happen to. Most women with this condition will not be able to conceive with their own eggs.

However, it is possible to carry a pregnancy via IVF using a donor egg. If you have ovarian insufficiency but still want to start a family, talk to a fertility specialist about your best options.

Emotional support is important for premature ovarian failure

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Learning that your ovaries aren’t working any more can be devastating – especially if you’re still young. Depression and anxiety are very common for women dealing with ovarian failure, so it’s a good idea to talk over your feelings with a mental health professional. Remember: you’re not in this alone.

Thanks to advances in medical technology, there are still options for women with primary ovarian insufficiency to get pregnant and start a family. Emotional support is very important in treating this condition, so don’t hesitate to ask your healthcare provider where to find someone to talk to in your area.