As if we don’t have enough to worry about during menopause – mood swings, hot flashes, night sweats, fatigue – add joint pain to the list.
As we age and enter menopause, inflammation in our joints increases, causing pain, stiffness, and sometimes swelling. This happens because estrogen receptors in our joints protect the bone, which helps keep inflammation in check. But when estrogen levels fall, inflammation can occur, leading to aches and pains. Estrogen also helps regulate fluid levels, which helps keep cartilage, the joint connective tissue, healthy. So decreased levels of estrogen can affect the hydration and lubrication of the joints. This hormonal reduction can also result in dehydration, causing joint swelling from a uric acid build-up. An estrogen drop can also cause a loss of bone density, a contributing factor to osteoporosis which makes the bones weaker and more brittle as we age.
All kinds of joint pain can occur: in the knees, shoulders, neck, back/spine, elbows, hips, hands, fingers, wrists, and jaw. Typically, joint pain is worse in the mornings but eases as the joints loosen up with daily movement and activities. This joint pain also tends to be worse in cold weather. Interrelated with joint pain, osteoarthritis is also an inflammatory disease that typically surfaces in middle age, around menopause, and is characterized by pain and stiffness of the joints due to a wearing down of the protective tissue between bones.
What Can We Do?
We can make many non-medical and lifestyle changes to help alleviate these aches and pains.
Low impact Activity
Exercise strengthens joints and helps us stay flexible. Especially helpful, low-impact options are swimming, the elliptical, cycling, hiking, yoga, and tai chi. Unfortunately, if you like jogging, this high-impact activity puts a strain on joints, making joint pain worse, so it is not the best option. This exercise-related pain may feel like a shooting pain or burning sensation after working out, so be cautious not to overdo it.
- Sugars and carbohydrates have been shown to trigger inflammation, so replace white bread, rice, and flour with whole grains like wheat bread, brown rice, and quinoa.
- Diets low in omega-3 fatty acids exacerbate inflammation, so eat tuna, salmon, or mackerel.
- Other inflammatory fighters include blueberries, blackberries, cherries, soybeans, kale, and spinach.
- In general, fruits, vegetables, and legumes (peas, beans, and lentils) contain phytochemicals that have anti-inflammatory properties. These whole plant foods, rich in antioxidants, can work to fight free radicals that cause inflammation in the body.
- Avoid red meat, processed foods, soda, and foods with trans-fatty acids like margarine.
- Several herbs and spices are also thought to help reduce inflammation, such as turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, clove, garlic, and cayenne pepper.
Cortisol produced during stress contributes to more inflammation in the joints. Practice stress relief techniques such as meditation, walking the dog, cooking, chatting with a friend, etc., to avoid stress. Stress also causes muscles to tense up, which, in turn, causes joints to work harder, leading to inflammation and pain.
Keeping your weight down will reduce pressure and stress on your joints. According to arthritis.org, every pound of excess weight exerts four pounds of extra pressure on your knees.
Stretching eases joint pain by lubricating joints with a gentle motion. An added benefit is that it helps maintain a fuller range of motion as we age. If you sit a lot, get up every 20 to 30 minutes and march in place, do leg squats or lunges, do wrist circles, or use a squeeze ball for stress relief. The cat-cow yoga pose is a good gentle exercise that improves spine flexibility and stretches out the tension and stiffness in the back. And yoga, in general, includes many moves which stretch all parts of the body for better overall flexibility and balance.
Many things are impacted by a bad night’s sleep, and pain is no different. It can feel worse if you are tired or suffering from insomnia.
Joint pain is made worse by dehydration, so drinking more water can help. Add lemon, cucumber, or a couple of raspberries for added flavor if you don’t like plain water. Up to 80% of cartilage is water, so hydration is a significant factor in cushioning between bones.
A strong body helps protect bone density and build muscle. Increasing body strength and improving posture contribute to less muscle and joint pain as well as improved flexibility. Pilates, yoga, and lifting weights are great ways to strengthen muscles around the joints, providing more stability and less risk of injury. A strong core also helps take the pressure off the knees and ankles.
If you elect to seek pain relief using hot or cold methods, the type you use will depend on what works best for you and your personal preference. Ice helps reduce inflammation and swelling and can numb the pain. Heat loosens the muscles and increases circulation, and it also improves the flexibility of tendons and ligaments, which can ease joint pain.
Poor posture puts extra pressure on joints and makes it harder for muscles to take the load off your joints. This bad habit can create a vicious cycle where pain makes you adjust and reposition the body to avoid the pain, which puts added pressure on other areas of the body. And so, the cycle repeats itself. See the Alexander Technique for added information on good posture.
Alternative therapies can have a significant impact on some. Massage or acupuncture have both been known to work wonders to ease aches and pains for many.
- The herbal supplement Devil’s Claw is thought to alleviate menopausal joint pain much like steroids but without side effects. It contains compounds, iridoid glycosides, with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
- Calcium helps keep bones strong and healthy (along with magnesium), which also helps maintain cartilage, nerve, and muscle function and regulate heart rhythm and blood sugar levels. Magnesium is also needed for calcium to be absorbed effectively. A magnesium deficiency can lead to inflammation and more discomfort around the joints.
- Glucosamine chondroitin can also help reduce the deterioration of joint tissues. Take 1500 mg daily.
- Vitamin D is essential to good bone health, so a deficiency can lead to bone weakness and joint pain. Sunlight is the best way to get this vitamin; however, it is harder to get proper sun exposure in fall and winter, so a supplement might be needed. The National Health Service, NHS, recommends 10 micrograms (400 iu) during these months.
- CBD products are all the rage and show promise of reducing joint pain but are not yet FDA-approved and need more research.
- A cup of nettle tea in the morning or a few doses of nettle tincture daily can reduce joint inflammation.
- Hyaluronic acid has been shown to help lubricate joints.
Topical Pain Relievers
While typical pain relievers such as ibuprofen can be used short-term, they are not intended for week-after-week use. Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) has mixed results for menopause and joint pain… some studies show sustained reduction in joint pain; however, others link HRT to heart issues, so more definitive studies are needed regarding its safety.
The bottom line is that while joint pain is very annoying and even disruptive, there are many different ways to alleviate this type of pain using a combination of the suggestions above.