Menopause Misdiagnoses Are Too Common: How To Get Better Care
Did you know there are 34 primary menopause symptoms? From vaginal dryness that can make sex suddenly feel painful to sleep changes that can affect rest, there's a whole lot of newness to figure out during this time of life that 6,000 women enter every day.
During menopause, your body can be confusing, and you might have a difficult time getting clear answers from doctors. In my decades as a practicing OB/GYN, I've seen firsthand how common it is to have menopause symptoms misdiagnosed.
How common are menopause misdiagnoses?
According to a new survey of 1,200 women conducted by Kindra (a company I sit on the medical advisory board of) and The Harris Poll, one in three women aged 45-54 had been diagnosed with a condition by a health care provider before finding out it was actually menopause causing their symptoms. Menopause symptoms can be misdiagnosed as serious diseases ranging from fibromyalgia, blood clots, lupus, heart problems, and more.
Plus, 32% of women surveyed are worried that their health care provider is not knowledgeable about menopause. For women who have already sought out medical care for menopause issues, 60% report not finding their doctor's advice helpful.
Women’s health issues are woefully underfunded and under-researched.
This survey demonstrates something I've known for a long time: Menopause is too often misunderstood. And on the whole, women's health issues are woefully underfunded and under-researched.
Common menopause side effects that are misdiagnosed
While the numbers are upsetting, there are ways to get the care you deserve. One of my hopes is that every woman understands what's happening to her body. This understanding is the first step to getting proper care.
So, let's talk about symptoms: While hot flashes and vaginal dryness are commonly recognized, others are often less obvious and can lead to misdiagnosis. Lesser-known symptoms of menopause include:
- Back and joint pain: Between 40% and 70% of midlife women experience joint and back pain. While much of this is attributable to being middle-aged, declining estrogen levels, which can increase inflammation, may play a role in an uptick in these aches and pains1.
- Heart palpitations: It might be surprising, but heart palpitations can be triggered by hormonal changes during pregnancy and menopause, per the Mayo Clinic. A small 2013 study published in the journal Menopause suggests that anywhere from 28.7% to 46.9% of peri- and post-menopausal women experience heart palpitations2.
- Changes in body odor: Body odor often changes during menopause as a normal consequence of the physiologic act of sweat mingling with bacteria. Hormone changes are known to change body odor, but so can metabolic changes like dietary changes, kidney disease, or insulin resistance.
How to avoid getting misdiagnosed
The good news is that solutions exist to help you get relief from nearly all menopause symptoms, common and uncommon. Here are a few that I recommend:
- Look for a specialist if you can: If you are seeking out a doctor, looking for the right credentials is a great place to start. Since menopause isn't usually covered adequately in regular residency programs, it would be helpful to find doctors who have received additional training specifically in menopause care. For example, a doctor who has an NCMP credential or who is an NAMS Certified Menopause Practitioner has gotten additional training from the North American Menopause Society. Although these credentials aren't required for a doctor to provide good health care, they can only help.
- Bring notes to your appointment: Once you've found a doctor, it can be helpful to bring notes. Write down symptoms you want to discuss and questions you want to ask ahead of your appointment. You can even hand a list to your doctor. Another helpful tip is bringing a support system, such as a close friend or partner, who can serve as a third-party ally to make sure the doctor is hearing your concerns and addressing them seriously. In my book, The Menopause Bootcamp, I provide readers with an advocacy checklist to help them better understand their symptoms and navigate the health care system.
- Try telehealth: Telehealth is a great option to find a trusted provider in a more accessible way. I believe it can help bridge the gap in women's health care and give women the care they deserve. (Kindra partners with Gennev to offer virtual visits with board-certified OB/GYNs to provide menopause health care no matter where you live in the U.S.)
Too many women are not getting the care they deserve around menopause, and misdiagnoses are common. In order to avoid having symptoms like back pain and heart palpitations misdiagnosed, choose a doctor who is menopause-informed and go to appointments with a list of symptoms and questions to run through.
I hope these tools and resources help you feel confident, secure, and even joyful throughout the transformational journey that is menopause.
Suzanne Gilberg-Lenz, M.D. is a nationally renowned doctor, expert, speaker, advocate for integrative women’s health and author of the book "Menopause Bootcamp". She is also the Senior Medical Advisor for Kindra, the leading direct-to-consumer sex-positive vaginal health company for women over 40.
As a partner at Women’s Care of Beverly Hills, she’s performed thousands of deliveries and continues to help women transition through important phases of their lives, from adolescence to post menopause. Her expertise covers all aspects of gynecology including sexual health, fertility, pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum, and the science of self care.
Dr. Suzanne received her Bachelor's in Psychology from Wesleyan University and her Doctor of Medicine from the University of Southern California. Her diverse background combining her degrees in conventional medicine, Ayurveda, and holistic medicine are key factors to what make her the integrative women’s healthcare expert that she is. Her mission is to not only explore what it means to be a woman in this culture and age, but to also support growth as individuals and how people show up in their communities.
Since 2006, Dr. Suzanne has reached millions through television, print, and dozens of online platforms. As the landscape of women’s health changes, networks such as CNN, NBC, and Fox look to her for answers on new medicine and technological developments for postpartum depression, fertility, HPV, and sexual wellness.