Pain and Menopause – Is it Inevitable?
As I write this fresh from a visit with my hormone specialist, it dawned on me that many of us sit passively back and accept that we must simply endure the added aches and pains that come with ageing. The years long experience of menopause in particular seem to throw us ladies a curve ball in that we ‘experience’ more of….well, everything.
As a therapist who is trained in treating pain through body work and yoga, as well as having some training in nutrition, I am always searching for more answers.
I am certainly no expert on the topic, however I do know through my own personal journey and those of my friends, colleagues and clients that we need to understand what our bodies and minds my go through. Importantly, we need to take management into our own hands and consider which tools might be of the most benefit.
While aches and pains and joint stiffness are all inevitable as we age, as women move through the menopause timeline, (typically between the age of 45 and 55), many are often surprised to discover that joint pain is one of the most common symptoms, alongside hot flushes, night sweats, mood swings and more.
Joints such as the elbows, neck, shoulders, hands and fingers can also be affected and, according to the experts, can be due to hormonal changes as well as those other normal ageing changes we experience at this time of life.
Falling estrogen levels in particular are thought to be one of the main causes of joint pain during menopause as our body becomes less able to hold water, which can affect the hydration and lubrication of the joint tissues, including the cartilage, ligaments and tendons.
Water is a majority component of cartilage and acts as a cushion between the bones, absorbing shock and easing friction. Water is also a natural part of synovial fluid, a gel-like liquid which lubricates the cartilage and helps the joints move without creating friction. When this is impaired it can cause aches, pains and stiffness.
Fluctuating estrogen levels may also give rise to underlying, low-grade inflammation and, as a result, can cause more pain. Additional factors may include dehydration due to night sweats, excessive cortisol release due to stress and weight gain.
Unfortunately, weight gain and/or body shape change is common during menopause due to the fact that falling estrogen levels can make it harder to metabolise carbohydrates and affect the distribution of fat. Ultimately this also puts pressure on joints.
Sugary foods, high-salt and processed food, as well as caffeine, fizzy drinks, and dairy can all trigger inflammation in the joints and aggravate joint pain.
Some experts also believe that certain vegetables known as the nightshade vegetables could exacerbate joint pain. Experimenting with cutting out these trigger foods might help you determine if it makes a difference.
Factors such as posture, sleep and nutrient deficiencies can also play a part. When experiencing pain, you are more inclined to hold yourself differently, repositioning your body to take pressure off the painful area, but adding pressure to other areas.
Poor sleep is also common during menopause and research has proven that sleep deprivation increases our sensitivity to pain. Low magnesium can also impact pain perception, as well as causing sleeping problems. Magnesium is needed to keep muscles relaxed, so low levels can cause them become tight and stiff.
So what can we do?!
Natural approaches to help ease the discomfort of menopausal joint pain include:
- Drinking plenty of water
- Exercise to strengthen muscles and joints. Good options include non weight-bearing exercises (swimming, water aerobics and cycling) as high impact exercise such as jogging on hard roads can make everything feel worse. Low-impact weight-bearing exercises (walking, low-impact aerobics and dancing) and resistant, non-impact exercises (Pilates and yoga including hot yoga) are also great for maintaining mobility and movement, as well as focusing on stress reduction through using the breath.
- Eat foods that can help to ease joint pain. Some of the most beneficial anti-inflammatory foods include:
- Omega-3-rich foods – examples include oily fish such as herring, mackerel, sardines, salmon and tuna. Walnuts, almonds, chia seed and soybeans
- Antioxidant-rich foods – chemicals called anthocyanins are powerful antioxidants that help reduce inflammation. You can find them in brightly coloured fruit and vegetables such as cherries, raspberries, broccoli and blueberries
- Fresh food such as pineapple, apples, mushrooms, avocado, coconut oil, virgin olive oil, dark chocolate and spices such as ginger.
- Use heat and ice both: Heat, such as heating pads, infrared saunas, or warm epsom salt baths tend to work best for stiffness, as well as relax and soothe tired muscles. Cold therapies such as ice packs can help to numb nerve endings, dulling pain and restricting blood vessels, slowing circulation and reducing swelling.
- Use alternative treatments such as massage, acupuncture/dry needling, assisted stretching, chiropractor, Reiki, etc as they can help on both a physical as well as a psychological level.
- Use appropriate supplements (after being tested for levels by your GP) including magnesium, calcium, Vitamin D, and omega 3’s found in oily fish. All of these help with bone and muscle health as well as inflammation.
I would also suggest researching Integrative Doctors in your area who specialise in Hormone Therapy. These days they can test and prescribe the naturally occurring hormones we lose through the process such as progesterone, estrogen and testosterone without the side effects present in other chemically based replacement therapies.
– Lisa Randall is a qualified Remedial Massage and Beauty/Skin Therapist, Yoga & Pilates Teacher and Nutritional Counsellor