Menopause awareness: the M word and you

A passage in life that happens to all women and people with a cervix, despite half the population going through the menopause it is still continually misdiagnosed and misunderstood. For people with a physical or learning disability, the menopause can lead to new challenges

The menopause is a transition that all women and people with a cervix will experience at some stage in their life.

From perimenopause, which can last several years, to having menopause – when you have not had a period for at least one year – very little is still known about the menopause and learning disability, despite the fact all women and people with a cervix will experience this.

Additionally, the menopause can cause increased discomfort or exacerbate symptoms for some physical and hidden disabilities.

It is not uncommon for people to get misdiagnosed when transitioning from perimenopause to living with the menopause. In fact, during perimenopause, where periods start to change and become more erratic or heavier, other diagnoses might be given such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, depression or irritable bowel syndrome.

And, for many disabled people, misdiagnosis is not the only concern.

Understanding

“It’s important for everyone to learn about the menopause as it happens to all cisgender women and those with a cervix. That’s half the population,” stresses Dr Louise Newson, the UK’s leading menopause specialist.

Founder of the free menopause support app, balance, Louise is also the founder of The Menopause Charity, working to support everyone experiencing the menopause including working with the disabled community.

Transitioning into the menopause is unique to every person and thus the need for understanding of different treatment methods is critical. The average age for menopause in the UK is 51, but there are different age variations including some people experiencing the menopause in their 20s, 30s or 40s – this is considered young.

Your menopause will not happen overnight, unless you have had surgery to remove your womb (called a hysterectomy). Alongside individual occurrences, it is imperative that everyone who may get the menopause is educated and has the right level of knowledge and understanding – including the disabled community.

Louise continues: “I am working with people from the disabled community and professionals to try and help raise awareness of this huge area of need and we hope to produce some resources for healthcare professionals, carers and disabled individuals in the near future.

“When these conversations are not had, or the person is unable to understand the implications, these life events can be incredibly distressing, confusing and bewildering, especially if you feel there is nothing you can do about it or become worried that you are seriously unwell.”

Symptoms

From heavier periods, increased levels of anxiety or a sense of dread, heart palpitations, headaches or even feeling dizzy: the symptoms of menopause can be both psychological and physical, lasting several years or decades.

“For some women, they can be doing all the right things with diet and exercise and looking after their mental health, but they still struggle with symptoms on a daily basis,” explains Louise.

“This is when you might want to think about getting treatment from a doctor. The most effective treatment for menopause symptoms is hormone replacement therapy (HRT). This simply gives the hormones back to your body that it is missing.”

Taking into consideration what is right for your body is critical, but alongside misinformation for the disabled community and misdiagnosis, there is also critical misconceptions around specific menopause medication, primarily HRT.

Following on from a 2002 study by the Women’s Health Initiative which stated HRT was associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, many people are apprehensive of taking the medication which can be incredibly beneficial and helpful. Additionally, the concerns over breast cancer are an outdated and inaccurate representation of HRT.

Louise explains: “There is plenty of good evidence to show that for most women, it will help your symptoms, and it will also protect you from certain diseases in the future like heart disease or the bone-weakening disease, osteoporosis.”

Treatment

Looking at all disabilities, different treatment methods are still missing the mark to provide the right level of support, so it is important to advocate for yourself or the person you care for when speaking with medical professionals.

“Menopause care and treatment for people with learning and physical disabilities is a huge unmet need, not just in the UK but across the world,” explains Louise. “It is challenging enough for women without a disability due to widespread misunderstanding about the menopause and HRT, but when there is additional learning and communication needs, or a physical disability or ongoing health conditions, it makes accessing treatment extremely challenging.

“If you have a physical disability, be aware that a drop in hormones could worsen some of the issues you might already face. Joint pains and muscle aches are incredibly common during the perimenopause and menopause.”

Taking a record of your symptoms, possible with Louise’s app, preparing yourself to ask for more information, persevering with medical appointments if you believe you are perimenopausal or have the menopause and have been misdiagnosed and, most importantly, not giving up are all essential to ensure you have a positive experience moving into the next chapter in your life.

Advice and guidance is available from The Menopause Charity, Mencap and the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities. Download Louise’s free app, balance, on the App Store and Google Play.

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