Once the menstrual cycle has become established, most women become "regular as clockwork," knowing exactly when their period will arrive and how long it will stay. They can anticipate it almost to the minute and even plan some things - like vacations - around those dates. However, it isn't that way for many women. Those who suffer with certain physical disorders, those who are extreme athletes, or have very low body weight, often encounter problems with irregular menstrual periods.
Not Quite The Same As Amenorrhea
Oligomenorrhea is defined as infrequent or very light menstruation. However, many physicians narrow the definition to be reflective of women who had well-established periods prior to developing problems with light or infrequent menstrual flow. When a woman has oligomenorrhea, she has between four and nine periods a year, often with more than 35 days between them.
A condition that is similar, but not the same is amenorrhea. Amenorrhea is the complete absence of menstruation. Either menses never started at all or stopped entirely after having been established. Oligomenorrhea may become amenorrhea if there is no period for more than six months.
Irregular Periods Are Not Uncommon, Until...
It is common for most women to deal with irregular periods at the beginning and ending of their reproductive lives. At the beginning, it takes time for the hypothalamus, pituitary glands, and ovaries to synchronize and produce a regular rhythm. At the end of the reproductive years, hormones are depleted, the ovaries stop sending eggs, and things, once again are out of sync. It's normal.
There are varieties of reasons why a woman may have oligomenorrhea and miss periods. Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a condition where the ovaries are filled with cysts, can cause menstrual irregularities that range from excessive bleeding (menorrhagia) to amenorrhea and oligomenorrhea. Chronic illnesses, like diabetes, osteoporosis or estrogen-secreting tumors, can also affect menstruation.
Certain People Are More At Risk Than Others
Professional athletes, models, and dancers, particularly ballet dancers, are most prone to oligomenorrhea due to their intense strenuous physical training and their strict diet. Since they have to keep their weight down for their sport or profession, they become subject to menstrual irregularities. Women and girls who have poor nutrition habits, suffer with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or exercise excessively are equally at risk.
The most notable symptoms of oligomenorrhea include intervals between periods of more than 35 days; irregular menstrual periods with unpredictable (usually light) flow; and, in some women, difficulty conceiving pregnancy.
Diagnosis And Treatment Of Oligomenorrhea
Diagnosis of oligomenorrhea begins with reporting the irregularities to the doctor, having a complete physical and medical history taken and screening for eating disorders. A Pap test, pelvic examination and pregnancy test (just in case), and blood tests are done as well to establish the hormonal levels and to rule out various illnesses. Depending upon the individual, treatment may be minimal (as in women near menopause), or just a change in diet. Sometimes birth control pills or hormones are recommended. There are also a number of alternative treatments such as natural hormone replacement, acupuncture and diet and nutrition counseling.