May 3, 2010
When a young woman’s menstrual periods get out of whack — extra-long, extra-short or intermittent — she may just chalk it up to stress and ignore it. To even out monthly cycles, doctors often prescribe birth control pills, without doing much of an evaluation first. But both those approaches are a mistake, says gynecologist Lawrence Nelson, of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Nelson studies primary ovarian insufficiency, a disruption in reproductive hormones that affects 1 in 100 women by age 40. His research has shown that POI greatly reduces fertility, impairs bone health and often goes undiagnosed for years.
“There’s this disconnect,” says Nelson. “The menstrual cycle is just seen more as a nuisance by many women. But actually, [when periods are regular] it’s the sign that the ovaries and the whole endocrine system related to reproduction is working the way it should.”
Birth control pills don’t cause the condition, Nelson says, but they can mask it for years.
“It might be reassuring to women to think, ‘Oh, it looks like things are fine now, because my periods are coming,’ ” Nelson says. “But, in fact, their ovaries aren’t supplying the hormones to make that happen, so it’s masking the fact that their ovaries aren’t working.”