There are many different causes of joint pain, but for women, add one more to the list: menopause. Menopause and joint pain may be a surprising combination, but 41% of perimenopausal (before menopause) women and 57% of post-menopausal women reported a significant increase in joint pain. Does menopause cause joint pain?

Menopause and joint pain: Are they connected?

When it comes to examining the link between menopause and joint pain, says Carmen Pichard-Encina, MD, an instructor in orthopedic surgery at Johns Hopkins University and the Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore, doesn’t see a link. She noted:

“Osteoarthritis is more common in women, but there is no direct association with menopause.”

Her colleague, Karen Kansler, MA, RN, a community-outreach arthritis nurse at the Good Samaritan, believes that this link between menopause and joint pain has been made due to age only, but notes that women over 50 do have a significant risk factor that could be contributing to the link:

“The only commonality is that both usually occur in women over age 50, {however], estrogen reduction during menopause very often means bone loss that puts women at risk for osteoporosis — thinning of the bone — which dramatically increases the risk of fracture.”

Osteoporosis

Age and gender are both major risk factors for osteoporosis, a thinning of the bones that occurs most often in women over 50 and may contribute to osteoarthritis. This type of arthritis is described as a “wear and tear” disease that is not associated with any particular injury. Rather, regular use (and sometimes overuse or improper use) over time causes inflammation that adds pain to bones that are naturally thinning as women age.

When menopause hits, usually between the ages of 48 and 55 in most women in the U.S., estrogen levels drop. This drop can cause an accelerated rate of bone loss and deterioration. Osteoporosis will not be readily apparent unless bone mineral density tests are prescribed.

Osteoarthritis

While osteoporosis is silent, osteoarthritis makes its presence known in the form of painful, swollen joints. A decrease in the range of motion often accompanies this pain. This may prompt women to stop exercising due to pain, a cycle that can only make pain worse.

For women entering menopause, this pain and decreased range of motion in the knees, hands, hips, and ankles can seem like a prominent side effect of menopause itself. However, it may just be an age-related coincidence. Menopause and joint pain are not necessarily connected physically so much as they are coincidentally due to their timing of onset.

Other risk factors

Gender and age aren’t the only risk factors for osteoarthritis, either. Any of the following can also contribute to the development of painful, swollen joints:

  • Smoking: Contributes to loss of bone density
  • Occupation: Repetitive tasks can overtax specific joints
  • Lack of physical exercise
  • Not enough sunshine: Vitamin D plays a key role in the absorption of calcium
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Osteoporosis: Thinning bones can actually play a part in the development of joint pain
  • Overuse of steroids
  • Excess weight: Adds pressure and stress on the joints

Kansler recommends talking with a doctor if joint pain arises suddenly or if there has been a recent fall, saying:

“It’s always a good idea to consult your doctor and get X-rays on painful joints, especially new-onset pain or pain after overuse, falling, or trauma, to confirm if it’s osteoarthritis or some other problem, like an infection or tumor.”

Menopause and joint pain: Self-care

Although menopause is inevitable for women, joint pain and other symptoms of menopause don’t have to be. Taking the time to practice self-care on a regular basis can help make many symptoms of menopause easier to handle. Some of these include:

Eating more protein

As we age, our bodies need more protein to maintain muscle mass. Muscle mass is critical for balance and bone support. Although people between the ages of 20 and 60 generally consume too much protein, older adult (60+) should aim for 1.2 to 1.5 g/kg a day (as compared to .8 g/kg daily for younger folks). This means that an older adult weighing 200 pounds requires about 108 grams of protein daily.

Exercising consistently

Exercise keeps bones healthy, maintains a sharp mind, and increases an overall feeling of well-being. If joint pain is already a factor, look for low-impact exercise. This can also be cardiovascular exercises such as hiking, biking, and swimming. Yoga is another exercise that focuses on balance, proper alignment, and lengthening and strengthening the spine (and its muscles). Aim to sweat every day, and not just from hot flashes.

Eating well

Although protein needs increase as women age, the size of meals can actually decrease. Eating smaller meals more frequently may prevent hot flashes (large meals can cause the body to overheat). Snacking on plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and calcium-rich foods is the best way to get the vitamins you need. You can also ask your doctor if a daily supplement is appropriate for you. Keep in mind that calcium supplementation after the age of 50 does not seem to improve bone density as previously thought.

Quitting smoking

Smokers are at increased risk of everything from cancer to bone loss to Type 2 diabetes (or complications from Type 1 diabetes). Smokers are less likely to be active, more likely to be overweight, and more likely to die early from a smoking-related illness. The best thing anyone can do for themselves is to quit smoking today.

Exploring complementary medicine for symptoms

Complementary medicine for menopause includes things like acupuncture, massage, and chiropractic care. These forms of self-care may help ease other symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes and insomnia.

Find out more about some surprising effects of menopause, then tell us: have you experienced menopause and joint pain?

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