That ache in your hips, knees, fingers – more painful in the morning, diminishing during the day, interfering with work, play, and generally making life more difficult – is that just something you’re stuck with from now on?
It doesn’t have to be.
Joint pain can feel worse during the perimenopause-to-menopause transition as inflammation often ramps up during this time. But the good news is you can take steps (literally and figuratively) to manage the pain now and protect your active future.
What do we mean by “arthritis”? Terms first – what do we mean when we say “arthritis”? Is any pain in the joints arthritis? Dr. Darcy Foral, MD and board-certified, fellowship-trained Orthopedic Surgeon at the Edmonds Orthopedic Center, says when she and her peers use the term “arthritis,” they mean a joint that shows damage and changes as a result of that damage – changes that can be seen on an MRI or x-ray. In these cases, the damage is visible either as a narrowing of the joint or the presence of cysts or bone spurs.
The kinds of joint pain that show up because we overdid it on the soccer field or at the gym, pains that can be improved with ice and rest, are less likely to be arthritis.
There are basically three kinds of arthritis: osteoarthritis, which is the usual wear and tear of age. Traumatic arthritis is caused by an injury to a joint, whether that injury happened recently or in years past. And then there’s rheumatoid arthritis, when the body’s immune system begins attacking its own tissue, in this case, the lining of the joints. Arthritis treatment recommendations vary based on the type of arthritis.
The interplay between arthritis and menopause can be complicated. While it appears that the hormone changes of menopause don’t actually cause arthritis, estrogen dampens inflammation, so as levels of the hormone decline in menopause, inflammation – and with it, pain – can worsen.
Arthritis can, in turn, exacerbate menopause symptoms. Arthritis treatment is more difficult as lack of exercise due to arthritis pain may contribute to weight gain, depression, and poor sleep.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to minimize the double whammy of arthritis and menopause.
“Motion is lotion,” according to Doctors of Physical Therapy Meagan Peeters-Gebler and Brianna Droessler-Aschliman. “Even if you have arthritic symptoms, sitting still, not moving, is worse for your body than activity,” says Brianna. “People who get a diagnosis of arthritis or degenerative disc disease often fear that moving will make things worse. But activity and exercise that keep you stretching and moving are really important for maintaining flexibility and strength.”
As Meagan tells us, strengthening your core means your limbs (and therefore your joints) do less work. “If your hips and abdomen and pelvis and lower back are strong, your knees and ankles don’t have to work as hard to correct for the weakness in the chain.”
Omega-3s can help keep joints moving, as can good old water. Turmeric, ginger, garlic and cinnamon are good. Blueberries are awesome. Reduce salt and sugar and maybe cut back on the tomatoes. Keeping a record of foods and liquids you consume and your levels of pain might help you identify any unique triggers.
Maximize range of motion with gentle stretches and foam rolling. If the joint pain is in your wrists and fingers, squeeze a rubber ball or put rubber bands on your fingers and pull gently against them. These exercises shouldn’t add to your pain, so go easy. If you can, get help from a PT to learn to do these correctly so you maximize results and minimize risk.
Not only does smoking make arthritis worse, it can make the medication you’re taking to manage it less effective.
If the pain makes exercise difficult, check you’re using the best gear – do you need to replace your running shoes, or maybe replace running with the bike or the pool a couple of days a week? Is your bike fitted to your height and body type so you’re not putting additional pressure on your spine?
All of the above is helpful for managing the pain now, but arthritis is progressive, so it’s important to take steps to protect long-term health. Being aware of a couple of risk factors can help you stay healthier longer and keep you doing the active things you love.
As Dr. Darcy told us, poor bone density doesn’t cause arthritis, but it can cause injuries that can eventually lead to the development of arthritis. For example, compression fractures of the spine are common in women with osteoporosis. “As your spine compresses and the shape of it changes, you then develop arthritis in your spine, or narrowing of the joints, causing pinching of the nerves or narrowing of the spinal canal. These changes lead to back pain, nerve pain and weakness, and can be very debilitating as we age.” It’s important for women to get their bone density tested and take steps to continue building and preserving their bones.
Weight gain, often dramatic weight gain, happens to many women in menopause. It’s important for women to manage their weight as best they can, says Dr. Darcy. “We know from many scientific studies on osteoarthritis that extra weight will wear out your joints, especially your weight-bearing joints which are your hips, knees, and ankles.”
A diagnosis of arthritis isn’t the death knell for your active life – if anything, it should be a wake-up call to get moving. Consult with your doc, talk with a PT or qualified coach, and devise a plan to stay active and enjoy the many health benefits (including reduced menopause symptoms) that come with regular exercise!