Premature Ovarian Failure: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Premature ovarian failure is a condition where the ovaries of women younger than 40 years of age stop working normally.

Primary ovarian insufficiency or hypergonadotropic hypogonadism are other terms used to describe this condition. Certain hormones in the body are released by the pituitary gland when a woman’s ovaries function normally.

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These hormones cause the follicles in the ovaries that contain the eggs to mature. Every month one follicle matures and bursts open to release the egg. The egg travels along the fallopian tube and awaits fertilization by a sperm cell. If this does not happen, menstruation commences. In the case of premature ovarian failure, this cycle is disrupted by the inability of the ovaries to function normally. Studies show that one in a hundred women below the age of 40 suffers from premature ovarian failure.

How to tell if you're suffering from premature ovarian failure

Irregular periods are the first sign of premature ovarian failure. If you have irregular periods or regularly skip periods, it is best to consult with your doctor at the earliest. While irregular or missed periods may also be due to other reasons such as pregnancy, strenuous exercise, severe weight loss, stress or an imbalance of hormones, it is better to get tested and rule out the possibility of a more serious underlying medical condition. Other symptoms of premature ovarian failure include:

  • Hot flashes
  • Night sweats
  • Sleeplessness
  • Lack of concentration
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Loss of libido
  • Pain during sex
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Infertility

Diagnosis of premature ovarian failure

If you are under the age of 40 and suffer from irregular or missed periods, your doctor will check the FSH level in your blood to determine cause. Abnormal or high levels of FSH in your blood indicate a problem with the functioning of the ovaries. In the case of premature ovarian failure, the FSH levels in the blood are high, as the ovaries do not produce the desired amounts of estrogen necessary for a normal reproductive cycle. High FSH blood levels are therefore a clear indication that something is wrong. To measure the levels of estrogen in the blood, another blood test may also be done. Low levels of estrogen in combination with high FSH levels are a sure sign of premature ovarian failure.

What's caused the premature ovarian failure?

The two main causes for premature ovarian failure are follicle depletion and follicle dysfunction.

The causes of follicle depletion include:

  • Chromosomal defects such as Turner's syndrome or Fragile X syndrome
  • Toxins in the body as a result of chemotherapy or radiation as well as pollutants such as chemicals, tobacco, pesticides, and viruses

The causes of follicle dysfunction include:

  • An autoimmune disease
  • Unknown factors

Other factors that may increase your chances of developing premature ovarian failure are:

  • Age – Women between the ages of 35 and 40 are more susceptible to the condition.
  • Family history

Treat premature ovarian failure

As yet there is no known treatment to restore the ovaries and make them function normally. At best any type of treatment for premature ovarian failure can only address the symptoms of the condition. Some common treatments for women with premature ovarian failure include:

  • Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) – This provides the body with hormones such as estrogen and progesterone that are not being produced naturally by the ovaries. HRT can treat an irregular menstrual cycle as well as lower the risk of osteoporosis caused by low estrogen levels. HRT can be taken in the form of a pill, a patch, a vaginal ring, or a gel. This form of hormone therapy generally continues until the age of menopause (approximately 50 years).
  • Calcium and vitamin D supplements – These form an important part of any treatment for premature ovarian failure as they help prevent osteoporosis. For women ages 19 to 50, the calcium recommendation is 1,000 milligrams (mg) a day.
  • There is no treatment for infertility caused by premature ovarian failure. In such cases, counseling and support groups may help you get over your loss.
  • Currently research is being conducted on the benefits of testosterone therapy for women with premature ovarian failure. Testosterone is responsible for maintaining bone mass and is related to a woman's sex drive. With premature ovarian failure, low testosterone levels may also be responsible for some of the symptoms of the condition. However, more conclusive scientific evidence is still required before this treatment is offered.

Prevent premature ovarian failure

You need to do your best to stay healthy, if you wish to prevent ovarian failure. Since there is no proven way of preventing premature ovarian failure, you can make the following lifestyle changes:

  • No smoking or drinking
  • Regular exercise
  • Follow a balanced, low-fat diet to reduce to risk of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease
  • Increase your intake of calcium and vitamin D to prevent bone loss and osteoporosis
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