We want to start with a story of Amy who saw her GP last week about painful joints. We’re not talking about "oooh that's a bit sore" but, as she describes it, "shit a brick I am in so much pain I can hardly walk and why on earth! My hands and toes (as well as the larger joints) hurt to the point I can't do things like take my debit card out of my purse." She told her GP this and fortunately her GP knew a thing or two about menopause and started her on HRT. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for most.
Joint aches and pains come up a lot in conversations about menopause, as they should. They affect over half of women. Unfortunately, those conversations often include the statement: ‘no one told me aching joints could be caused by menopause, not even my GP.’ In this article, we will fill you in on how menopause and joint pain are connected and what options there are for menopause joint pain treatment.
This is us saying: aches and pains CAN be caused by menopause
Over 50% of women report joint aches and pain. The most common sites for menopause-related aches and pains include the spine, knees, hands, hips and shoulders. We don’t know why aching joints are more common during menopause, but studies of women using medication that reduces oestrogen have also shown low oestrogen to cause joint pain, while symptoms were improved when oestrogen was replaced.
More experimental studies show that oestrogen and progesterone have a wide range of effects on our cartilage (the flexible connective tissue found in your joints that keeps them moving smoothly). For example, an experiment by Jae-Hyuk Yang and their colleagues showed that when rats were given both oestrogen and progesterone, there was a decrease in cartilage degradation and increase in bone formation. (1) Limited research on women's health means we’re still stuck learning from experiments on animals… we know *eye roll*.
The drop in oestrogen levels during menopause can lead to a decline in Bone Mineral Density (BMD), a measure of bone strength, with some studies suggesting up to a 25% drop in the 5-7 years following menopause. Our bones are wonderful living organs that go through continual cycles of breaking down and building up. However, this is a fine balance and the decrease in bone strength (mass) is due to higher overall rates of bone loss than bone formation resulting in weaker bones. The decrease in oestrogen can also lead to an inflammatory response caused by the immune system. (2)
So, what can you do about joint pain during menopause?
- Exercise: Strong muscles protect our joints by taking the weight off our movements and absorbing any shock that would otherwise land on them. Resistance exercises are recommended to build up muscle strength and bone density. You should try to avoid high-impact exercises which put stress and weight on the bones and joints as well as repetitive exercises such as sit ups. Instead activities such as swimming and cycling will both keep you fit and have a lower risk of causing joint pain. (3)
- Diet: Proper dietary protein intake is an important lifestyle factor to help maintain muscle mass. Pulses (also known as legumes), fish, meat and eggs are examples of good sources of protein. (4) Vitamin D & Calcium are especially important for bone health.
- Hormone Replacement Therapy: Hormone replacement therapy has also been shown to help with joint pain. This is because increased oestrogen levels result in healthier joints and less frequent pain. (5)
- Supplements: Supplements for menopause joint pain can help you to maintain good bone health, reduce joint problems and decrease the risk of developing conditions such as osteoporosis. If you live in the UK, everyone should be taking Vitamin D as we just don’t get enough through sunshine in this bonny land.
- Pain relief: Menopause joint pain treatment can simply involve taking anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen and using an ice or heat pack. If you have severe pain that persists and disrupts your normal activities, consult a doctor as it could be caused by something else. (6)
But is menopause joint pain permanent?
It’s natural to worry about whether menopause joint pain will last forever, but taking steps like those above can improve your bone health and keep your joints in good condition, decreasing the likelihood of long lasting joint pain. Persevering with the right exercise can have an especially big impact on long term joint pain reduction (7) and making other changes to your diet and supplements can also help your joints.
While menopause is a common cause of joint pain, other reasons should still be thoroughly reviewed by your GP.