You may well ask! Although most of us have heard of the menopause, the word ‘peri-menopause’ is not used as often. In fact, when I first heard it, I had no idea what it meant even though I have a scientific background.
Basically, it’s the medical term that can be simply summed up in five words: ‘The approach to the menopause.’
This is important, as unlike childbirth which, once started, it usually progresses fairly rapidly, the menopause can go on for many years. It can stop and then, just as you think it’s all over, it can come back as an encore.
The peri-menopause is the start of all this. It’s the beginning of some of the symptoms such as irregular bleeding, mood swings and tender breasts. It’s the stage where you’re not quite into the full swing of the M word but very nearly – or at least, on the cusp.
So how do you know if you are menopausal or perimenopausal or neither?
There may be other health reasons for your so-called menopausal symptoms which is why it’s important to see your GP to rule out anything else. Your doctor may give you a blood test to check your hormone levels. The blood tests won’t definitely say if you are menopausal but they can give an indication by testing the level of FSH in the blood: this is the Follicle stimulating Hormone which stimulates the eggs in the ovaries to ripen. As you get older and the follicles become more resistant the FSH levels, they have to rise to a higher level to try and get the follicle to produce an egg. So if the result is very high, the doctor will say you’re likely to be in your menopause, especially if you have other symptoms such as irregular periods.
However, in the peri-menopausal period, the FSH levels fluctuate from month to month and through the cycle, particularly if you’re still having periods. A temporary raised FSH level can also be because of stopping the oral contraceptive pill, breast feeding, severe illness, hypothyroidism, depression, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and some medicines such as Prozac.
It’s worth knowing that if you’re already taking hormones for a medical condition (including contraception), the blood tests are unlikely to reflect a true reading. So you might need to come off the Pill in order to see if you really are entering the menopausal stage. The tricky bit here is that you could still be fertile so even if you are peri-menopausal, you could still theoretically, get pregnant.
There are also certain over-the-counter medical self-testing menopause testing kits where you can check the level of FSH of your urine on a stick, as in a pregnancy test. To get the best result, take the urine test on the third to fifth day of your period and do it over successive months to get a more accurate result. This will however only be an indication that you are menopausal: you do need to have other symptoms too.