Menopause book on a shelf
Photo: Levi Brown
Leanne Emerson was 37 when she stepped into an elevator and, for the first time, felt claustrophobic and short of breath. More panic attacks struck—in cars, theaters, bustling restaurants. "My heart would pound, I'd feel lightheaded, and my limbs would go numb," says the operations manager from Port Hueneme, California. When Emerson googled her symptoms, she found other women linking similar anxiety to perimenopause—the stage of fluctuating hormones before the menstrual cycle ceases. When Emerson's periods ended, at age 48, the panic attacks soon stopped as well.

While hot flashes and night sweats are familiar menopause symptoms, many women swear their gyrating hormones cause a host of other unusual problems. The menopause website Power-Surge.com lists 34 reported conditions, including sore joints, dizziness, a "burning tongue," heart palpitations, and "buzzing sensations" in the head.

Yet many physicians don't connect such complaints with menopause, largely because research tends to focus on obvious manifestations like hot flashes—and even these are poorly understood. "We certainly know more than we did a decade ago, but there's a lot to uncover," says Ellen W. Freeman, PhD, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center whose own study of 400 midlife women hasn't investigated the less common symptoms reported by subjects.

Menopause researcher Nanette Santoro, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Colorado Denver, notes that estrogen receptors are ubiquitous in the body, so hormonal fluctuations may indeed be felt almost anywhere. That sounds about right to Lisa Knapp, a 49-year-old Danbury, Connecticut, marketing coordinator, who in the past five years has battled achy joints, increased seasonal allergies, irritability, anxiety, the sudden inability to breathe, and an "internal shaking" sensation. She's hoping her problems will ease with the end of menstruation.

Of course, women experiencing any symptoms should talk with their doctors, says Santoro, who's seen problems ranging from joint pain to dizziness disappear when her perimenopausal patients start hormone therapy. Physicians might also prescribe medicines—antidepressants, allergy pills, or joint-pain creams—for individual conditions.

Many women say just knowing their strange symptoms are likely linked to fluctuating hormones can help. When her anxiety first struck, Emerson thought she was losing her mind. But hearing other women share similar stories normalized the weirdness. "Even though my symptoms remained, I felt much better emotionally after understanding this wasn't happening to just me," she says.

A Test to Pinpoint Menopause?

One day it may be possible to find out if you're genetically predisposed to early menopause (beginning at or before age 45), which is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. In October 2010, scientists from the University of Exeter and the Institute of Cancer Research in England published a study identifying four genetic variants that increase the chances of early menopause. The finding could lead to a test that would forecast the point at which a woman's fertility declines (which typically precedes menopause by a decade).

Meryl Davids Landau is a freelance writer living in Florida.

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