Premature ovarian failure refers to the loss of regular function of a woman’s ovaries before the age of 40. When the ovaries fail, they stop generating normal amounts of hormone estrogen or releasing eggs and in turn, infertility is a common end result.
With premature ovarian failure, women may have irregular periods or may even become pregnant. It is often associated with premature menopause, however, the difference is that women with premature menopause stop having periods and can’t get pregnant.
While the exact cause of premature ovarian failure remains unknown, restoring estrogen levels in women can help prevent further complications that can arise such as osteoporosis. Infertility, on the other hand, is more complicated matter and difficult to treat.
Common signs and symptoms of premature ovarian failure include:
- Irregular or skipped periods
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Vaginal dryness
- Painful sexual intercourse
- Poor concentration
- Low sex drive
- Difficulty sleeping
Although the exact cause remains unknown, genetics and changes in a woman’s immune system seem to play a role in premature ovarian failure. These changes may include:
- Chromosomal defects: Certain genetic disorders are associated with premature ovarian failure such as Turner's syndrome, a condition in which a woman is born with only one X chromosome instead of the usual two.
- Chemotherapy and radiation therapy: Premature ovarian failure may result if genetic material in the cells becomes damaged due to toxin-induced treatments. Other toxins such as cigarette smoke, chemicals, and viruses may also trigger ovarian failure.
- Immune system disorders: If certain changes within the immune system start producing antibodies in which a woman’s body attacks its own ovarian tissue, the end result is damage to the egg.
- Unidentified factors: There are certain factors that remain unknown as to the exact underlying cause of premature ovarian failure. Further testing is often required.
Certain factors that increase the risk of developing premature ovarian failure include:
- Age (most common in women around the ages of 35-40)
- Having a family history of premature ovarian failure
Complications that can arise from premature ovarian failure include the following:
- Infertility: The inability to get pregnant
- Osteoporosis: A condition that cause weak and brittle bones
- Depression or anxiety: Due to high risk of infertility and other complications, some women may experience mood changes such as depression and anxiety.
Treatment options for premature ovarian failure typically focus on the complications that can arise from estrogen deficiency.
Women often choose to pursue pregnancy through estrogen therapy or in vitro fertilization. It is also recommended that women who are trying to get pregnant take calcium and vitamin D supplements to help build the baby’s bone strength and teeth.
A more detailed description of treatment options for premature ovarian failure includes the following:
- Estrogen therapy: A medical procedure that involves adding certain female hormones (progesterone) to replace the ones the ovaries no longer produce (estrogen). The combination of hormones may cause vaginal bleeding again, but it won't restore ovarian function. Depending on a woman’s age and overall health condition, estrogen therapy has been associated with an increased risk of heart and blood vessel disease as well as breast cancer.
- Calcium and vitamin D supplements: Receiving both calcium and vitamin D are important for preventing osteoporosis, a condition that causes weak and brittle bones.
- In Vitro Fertilization: A process in which an egg is removed from the donor and is further fertilized by sperm outside the body, in vitro (in glass). The fertilized egg is then placed in a woman’s uterus. Medications are often recommended during this process in order to help balance the hormones to support the pregnancy.