If you lose the normal function of your ovaries before the age of forty, it is known as premature ovarian failure. "Normal" function refers to the ovaries ability to produce eggs, as well as the normal amounts of estrogen, which can lead to infertility and other problems as well. Many of us think of premature ovarian failure in the same category as premature menopause, a condition where a woman stops having periods before the age of forty. Women who have premature ovarian failure, however, may have periods off and on for years, and, in some cases, may even become pregnant. Premature ovarian failure does generally cause infertility, although typical fertility treatments are unlikely to be successful. Restoring estrogen levels can help prevent the typical complications of premature ovarian failure, but may bring some other risks along.
Symptoms of Premature Ovarian Failure
Some of the symptoms of premature ovarian failure include irregular or skipped periods, decreased sexual desire, irritability or difficulty concentrating, vaginal dryness and hot flashes or night sweats, as well as years of erratic periods. As you can see, many of the symptoms related to premature ovarian failure are the same as those experienced by women going through typical menopause.
In order to understand the causes of premature ovarian failure, you must be aware that your ovaries hold literally thousands of immature follicles, which contain eggs; at the beginning of each menstrual cycle your pituitary gland secretes follicle-stimulating hormones, which causes a small number of the egg-containing follicles to mature. Maturing follicles make estrogen, and the rising estrogen levels tell the pituitary gland that the FSH is no longer necessary. Women who have normal ovarian functions will then release another hormone called luteinizing hormone which causes the mature follicle to open, releasing the egg, and ovulation has occurred.
If you have few or no responsive follicles left in your ovaries, of if the ones you have are not responding properly, premature ovarian failure is likely. This type of follicle depletion can be caused by chromosomal defects such as Turner's syndrome, or fragile X syndrome, which is a major cause of mental retardation. Follicle depletion can also be caused by toxins in your body; chemotherapy and radiation treatments are a common cause of toxin-induced ovarian failure, as they can damage your genetic material. Other toxins which can cause follicle depletion include cigarette smoke, chemicals, pesticides and viruses. Many times it can be extremely difficult for your doctor to pinpoint your precise cause of premature ovarian failure. It is known that the risk of ovarian failure rises as you age, and that a family history of premature ovarian failure can increase your risk of developing the disease.
When to See a Doctor
If you've skipped your period for three months or more, you should see your doctor in order to determine the possible cause, as there could be many reasons you may be missing your periods, such as pregnancy, stress, a change in diet or exercise habits, or, in rare cases, cancer of the uterus. If you had planned to have a baby, a diagnosis of premature ovarian failure can be a hard blow. If you are feeling particularly depressed over your diagnosis of premature ovarian failure, consider seeking counseling. With proper hormone replacement therapy and appropriate self-care, you can expect to lead a healthy life, even with a diagnosis of premature ovarian failure.