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When the ovaries stop functioning normally prior to the age of 40, it is referred to as premature ovarian failure, or primary ovarian insufficiency. The ovaries produce the hormone estrogen. When premature ovarian failure occurs, the level of estrogen produced declines and eggs may not be released for fertilization. In many cases this leads to infertility.
Premature ovarian failure may sometimes get confused with premature menopause. It is important to distinguish between the two. When premature menopause occurs, women stop having periods and are unable to conceive. While premature ovarian failure often leads to irregularities with the menstrual cycle and trouble conceiving, women may still have periods and become pregnant.
Symptoms common with premature ovarian failure include hot flashes, missed periods, trouble concentrating, and night sweats. Some of the symptoms are comparable to those women may experience with menopause. Symptoms can be mild or intense.
Complications may develop in some women. When estrogen levels decrease, bone loss may occur. Some women may also experience depression. For women who are trying to conceive, fertility problems often can contribute to depression.
Doctors may not always be able to identify why primary ovarian insufficiency has occurred in some women. Women who have certain genetic conditions, such as Turner’s syndrome, may develop premature ovarian insufficiency. Women who undergo chemotherapy may develop ovarian failure due to the toxins in the drugs.
There does not appear to be a way to prevent premature ovarian failure. Doctors have not identified many risk factors. Women who have a family history of the condition are at higher risk. Another risk factor is increased age. Between the ages of 35 and 40, the chances of developing premature ovarian failure rise.
Treatment for the condition is aimed at reducing the side effects caused by the lack of estrogen. Often, hormone replacement therapy will be prescribed. The therapy may help reduce the risk of conditions associated with a lack of estrogen, such as osteoporosis.
Usually therapy will consist of estrogen, along with the hormone progesterone. Although the hormone replacement therapy may help symptoms of estrogen deficiency, it does not restore the function of the ovaries. There is not yet any treatment that can restore ovarian function.
A small percentage of women who have premature ovarian failure may conceive naturally. Many women with this condition, however, must pursue other strategies to get pregnant. Women wishing to become pregnant may choose to use donor eggs and in vitro fertilization.