Written by Corey Whelan
The joints of the body are located everywhere that two bones meet. Your joints are what gives you flexibility, and freedom to move with abandon and joy. Elastic joints are why you can dance like no one is watching or curl up like a cat to read a good book. Until, at least, menopause rears its inevitable head.
Stiff, painful joints during menopause are frustrating, and all too common. When your hips, knees, and elbows resist your commands, it can feel like your body’s betraying you.
There are many potential causes for painful, aching joints. Among them are the hormonal changes commonly associated with menopause.
Luckily, there are ways to reduce the discomfort of painful joints during menopause. If you’d rather not live with joint pain, here’s what you need to know.
How Menopause Can Cause Joint Pain
Menopause is a natural biological process, earmarked by the declining production of reproductive hormones, such as estrogen.
A causal link between lack of estrogen and joint symptoms has not been established. However, an association between the two occurrences is strong.1 Joint and musculoskeletal pain, as well as arthritis, become more common in women as they age. Data indicates that estrogen deficiency is associated with arthritis in the lumbar joints.2
Most telling is the effect of estrogen therapy on joint pain reduction. A study of over 10,000 postmenopausal women found that daily oral estrogen supplementation reduced joint pain and swelling.3
According to Rebecca Levy-Gantt, an OBGYN and Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, the connection between estrogen diminishment and painful joints in menopause is clear. “The joints of the body contain estrogen receptors. When estrogen levels decrease, joints in the knees, ankles, and other areas of the body go through a type of withdrawal. They have less fluid cushioning them from each other, so the bones rub together. There are no healthy joint spaces anymore. There are also more inflammatory markers. All of this adds up to equal joint pain,” she explains.
Studies have identified the presence of estrogen receptors in cartilage, bone, ligaments, and synovium, the connective tissue inside joints.4 Less estrogen and less lubrication in these areas can lead to irritation, inflammation, stiffness, and discomfort.
Other Causes of Joint Pain
Dr. Levy-Gantt notes other factors which can cause or exacerbate joint pain. Some of these, such as weight gain, are also often associated with menopause. “Extra weight puts extra stress on the joints, increasing stiffness and reducing mobility,” she says.
Diet can also have an impact. “Processed foods and simple carbohydrates can cause inflammation in joints, as well as adding to weight gain,” she adds.
Natural Approaches to Help Joint Pain
Some simple lifestyle changes can help decrease joint inflammation, and help you feel more comfortable:
“Being sedentary is not good for the joints,” says Dr. Levy-Gantt. She suggests what she calls “old-school” recommendations. “More activity is good. Studies consistently show that 150 minutes of cardio and two-to-three days of light resistance training [per week] is optimal. If you can’t do that, do what you can. Women say to me, ‘But I’m active, I walk my dog.’ I say to them, that’s not enough.”
If necessary, alter your diet. Swap out processed foods full of chemicals, fat, and salt for more natural, plant-based foods. Beans, vegetables, and plant-based proteins are all good choices.
You can also try reducing or eliminating simple carbohydrates, such as sugary desserts, white potatoes, and white bread.
Alcohol impairs the body’s ability to regulate inflammation. If you drink to excess (which the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines as more than three drinks in one day or seven drinks a week for women), try to cut back. Keep in mind that it doesn’t matter what you drink, alcohol is alcohol. Wine and beer can be just as detrimental as whiskey or gin.
Menopause joint pain supplements and other types of supplementation can help reduce inflammation in the body. Calcium and vitamin D support bone health. Dr. Levy-Gantt recommends taking 600 mgs. of calcium and 2,000 international units of vitamin D daily, however, recommendations may vary per individual.
Omega-3 supplementation is also beneficial. It has been found to reduce inflammatory joint pain in multiple studies, in addition to helping reduce the intensity of pain, stiffness and the number of painful joints.5
How to Manage and Reduce Symptoms of Joint Pain During Menopause
Home treatments can often be effective at reducing joint pain that is not associated with a serious, underlying health condition.
If you have discomfort in an isolated area, consider icing it for 10 minutes at a time.
Compression sleeves or bandages can also help, particularly if you have achy knees.
If joint pain is limiting your ability to function and enjoy life during menopause, short course doses of over the counter (OTC), anti-inflammatory medications, such as Advil and Ibuprofen may be a good option for you. Topical pain relievers can also numb the area, reducing the sensation of pain. It’s always best to check with your healthcare provider first, since they know your medical history and can advise on the best treatment plan.
It’s also important to honor your body. If you feel unable to exercise vigorously, opt for a gentle walk, or a short yoga session. Swimming and water aerobics are also good choices.
When to Seek Professional Help for Joint Pain
Nagging, unabating joint pain should be assessed by a medical professional, even if it temporarily resolves with OTC medication. It’s also important to understand that joint pain can be caused by conditions other than menopause. These can include lupus, fibromyalgia, or other conditions.6 Consider seeing your healthcare provider if:
- Bone pain is so severe it wakes you up from deep sleep
- Joint pain comes on suddenly for no obvious reason
- Sudden joint pain or swelling can be linked to a medication/drug you have taken
- The pain is interfering with your ability to enjoy life