What Happens To Your Body When You Have Your Ovaries Removed, According To Doctors
On Tuesday, Lena Dunham had her left ovary removed. On Wednesday, Dunham posted a photo her mother took of her post-op on Instagram, writing, “Yesterday I had a two hour surgery to remove my left ovary, which was encased in scar tissue & fibrosis, attached to my bowel and pressing on nerves that made it kinda hard to walk/pee/vamp. Over the last month it got worse and worse until I was simply a burrito posing as a human.” The removal of her ovary comes less than a year after Dunham’s hysterectomy, an experience that she wrote about in Vogue’s March 2018 issue, and a procedure that she chose to have at 31 when her struggle with endometriosis had become unbearable.
Dunham has always been extremely outspoken about her endometriosis and hasn’t shied away from posting photos on social media that convey the pain she’s suffered because of it and the choices she’s made for her body to eliminate that pain and suffering. Because of this, it only makes sense that Dunham would choose to be powerfully candid about her ovary removal, too. But what happens to your body when you have one ovary removed?
"If a woman has only one ovary removed she likely won't notice any extremely adverse symptoms long term," Dr. Patrice Harold, director of Minimally Invasive Gynecology at Detroit Medical Center's Hutzel Women's Hospital, tells Bustle. "If both ovaries are removed and she is premenopausal, she will most likely start to experience hot flashes, a change in sex drive, among other things in the immediate post-operative period (one to three days)."
While you'll experience changes to your body, still having your other ovary will be a saving grace in regards to the severity of the symptoms and issues you'll experience. "One ovary can compensate for the other being removed," Tiffanny Jones, MD FACOG, reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist at Dallas IVF, tells Bustle. "When both are removed the estrogen levels fall dramatically."
Here's what else someone can expect when their ovaries are removed, according to doctors
1. There Will Be Initial Pain And Bleeding
As is the case immediately after any surgery, a woman who has had her ovaries removed is likely to feel and experience physical pain, before anything else.
"Immediate symptoms that women may experience are bleeding, lower abdominal pain, changes in sex drive, and depression, just to name a few," OB/GYN, Teresa K. Leung DO, tells Bustle. "It also may be difficult to walk for a few days to a week post-surgery, depending if surgery was performed laparoscopically or more invasively."
2. Hormone Levels Will Quickly Drop
"After the ovaries are removed hormones levels will abruptly drop," Jones says. "The major hormone that is secreted from the ovaries is estrogen. The ovaries being removed causes surgical menopause. She can experience hot flashes, night sweats, [and] vaginal dryness almost immediately."
If you've ever heard your mother or grandmother — or even friends who have naturally gone through early menopause — talk about it, then you've probably already heard quite a bit about those menopause-related hot flashes.
3. But You Won't Lose All Your Estrogen
4. There May Be A Shift In Mood And The Ability To Understand Clearly
Not only is there the possibility for depression after a woman has her ovaries removed, but other changes in mood and cognitive issues can arise, too.
"She may also begin to experience mood swings, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and decreased cognitive skills shortly after," Dr. Harold says. "If she is already postmenopausal, these symptoms are not likely to occur."
5. Hormonal Supplements Will Become Necessary
If both ovaries are removed, it'll be necessary to regulate a young woman's hormones through supplements. Without those supplements, according to Dr. Jones, a young woman is more likely to develop cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis, and her life expectancy can decrease as well.
"Hormone therapy may be needed after removing both ovaries depending on indication for removal," Dr. Leung says. "If there are no contraindications, a woman can consider taking estrogen therapy since the body would no longer make estrogen after removing both ovaries. If only one ovary is removed, a woman may not need a hormonal supplement as she would still produce estrogen in one ovary... If a woman still has her uterus, she may also need progesterone therapy."
6. Age Plays A Role In How The Body Reacts After The Removal
Although, according to Dr. Leung, "Typical response to ovarian surgery will be similar across ages," someone's age does determine how her body reacts, from a hormonal standpoint.
Depending on how where a woman is in her menstrual cycle — lifetime cycle, not monthly cycle — the further she is from menopause, the more she's going to be affected by having her ovaries removed. "In a young woman estrogen levels are high depending in what phase of the menstrual cycle she is in," Dr. Jones says. "In older women who are post menopausal (usually above 51 years old), the ovaries produce very little estrogen so the effect of having the ovaries removed from a surgical standpoint is not as drastic. The ovary does secrete androgens as well so removing post-menopausal ovaries can have varying effects on a woman."
That's why it's paramount that younger women, especially, take supplements. Not just to help her live longer and have less medical issues, but to help deal with the hormonal changes.
7. Premature Thinning Of The Bones Will Become A Concern
"Bones are constantly undergoing destruction of bone and replenishment of bone," Dr. Honaker says. "This is done by osteoclasts and osteoblast, respectively. Estrogen helps the replenishment part of this balance and so when it is taken away, the destruction outpaces the replenishment, thus thin bones (osteopenia and osteoporosis)."
Again, this is where supplements are going to be very important.
8. It Can Take A Long Time Before The Body Adjusts To The New Changes
With so many changes that occur in the body after a woman has her ovaries removed, is there a timeline as to how long it can take the body to adjust? "That is a difficult question to answer," Dr. Jones says. "All women experience menopausal symptoms differently. Without hormone replacement the adjustment can take years."
Dr. Leung echoes a similar sentiment: it's really hard to pinpoint recovery time. "As with any surgery, the body will need time to recover from the trauma of surgery," Dr. Leung says. "Recovery time from ovarian surgery can take anywhere from two to six weeks, physically, depending on whether or not the procedure was done laparoscopically or if it is more invasive."
But if both ovaries are removed, she'll go through a larger change. "Removal of both ovaries requires the body to go through more of a change because the reproductive system where a woman stores her eggs has been removed," Dr. Leung says. "This can be a huge adjustment for a woman psychologically speaking."
9. It Can Provide A Sense Of Relief
Despite the changes, the initial pain, the possible side effects, and hormones that might go a little haywire, Dr. Harold points out a very important fact about women who have had their ovaries (or one ovary) removed: "If she had severe endometriosis and had definitive surgical therapy (total hysterectomy bilateral salpingo-opherctomy), she may be pain free for the first time in a very long time therefore the hot flashes are not problematic." Hot flashes are a small price to pay for finally being pain-free.
While our bodies are far more than just our reproductive organs, those organs are chockfull of hormones that regulate us in ways that we far too often take for granted. But with the right care, the hormonal supplements, and an understanding of how and why our body is acting the way it's acting after the removal of those ovaries, it is something that can be managed — and, in some women's cases, that removal is a sigh of relief more than anything else.