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Joint pain is one of the more common menopause symptoms and it can be one of the more debilitating as it reduces mobility and flexibility. Here, I take a closer look at what causes joint pain in the menopause and how to treat and prevent achy joints through simple lifestyle and diet changes, natural therapies and supplements.
Eileen Durward Menopause Advisor @EileenDurward
While aches and pains and joint stiffness are all inevitable as we age, as women approach menopause, 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, period changes and mood swings.
The average age for menopause is between 45 and 55, so it is little wonder why many women put their aches and pains down to aging.
Joints which are involved in high impact movements such as the hips and knees tend to be most affected. The elbows, neck, shoulders, hands and fingers can also be affected by joint pain.
There are a number of causes of joint pain during menopause including:
Below, I take a closer look at each of these causes and recommend ways to help prevent and treat joint pain during menopause.
Falling oestrogen levels are thought to be one of the main causes of joint pain during menopause. As you reach menopause, levels of oestrogen in your body begin to drop. Oestrogen is responsible for regulating fluid levels in the body; therefore, if levels of this hormone are low, the body becomes less able to hold water, which can affect the hydration and lubrication of the joint tissues, including the cartilage, ligaments and tendons.
Up to 80% of cartilage is water,1 making it a very important component of this flexible and protective tissue, which 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.
Water is also needed to help support the flexibility and elasticity of the ligaments and tendons. Ligaments connect one bone to another and are needed for joint stability, while tendons connect your muscles to the bones. When your ligaments and tendons lose their elasticity, your range and ease of movement can be reduced.
Therefore, without enough water, the flexibility and lubrication of the joint tissues can all be affected. When this protective and supportive nature is impaired, it can cause aches, pains and stiffness to develop.
Fluctuating oestrogen levels may also give rise to underlying, low-grade inflammation as a result of the effects it has on the functions of joints, which could also be a factor in menopause joint pain.
Not drinking enough water and excessive sweating during menopause can also contribute to dehydration at this time. If you find that you experience joint pain and stiffness more in the morning, then dehydration during the night could be a contributory factor, especially if you are also experiencing night sweats.
Dehydration can also make it difficult for your kidneys to get rid of excess uric acid, which can cause a build-up of tiny, sharp crystals in and around joints, making them inflamed and sore.
This is identified as gout, a type of arthritis which affects joints towards the ends of the limbs, such as your toes and fingers.
Stress, surprisingly, can have a negative effect on your joint health. If you are experiencing a lot of stress, your body will release high quantities of the hormone cortisol. This hormone works as an inflammatory agent when present long-term, and so high levels of stress during the menopause will only make your joint pain worse.
Stress can also cause our muscles to tense up; this tension causes our joints to work so much harder which can lead to further inflammation and discomfort. It is important if you tend to experience stress to take time to relax every day.
Excess weight puts additional pressure on weight-bearing joints such as the knees and hips. According to Arthritis.org, every pound of excess weight exerts about 4 pounds of extra pressure on the knees.2
Unfortunately, weight gain is an all too common problem during menopause. Falling oestrogen levels can cause a problem with carbohydrate metabolism in some women, making it very easy to put on weight. Stress and lack of activity throughout the menopause can also cause weight gain.
Losing even just few pounds can help take the pressure off your joints, improving mobility and relieving pain.
Carbohydrates aren’t the only foods that can be a problem during menopause; there are many foods which can actually trigger joint pain.
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.
There is also some debate about whether or not certain vegetables, known as the nightshade vegetables could exacerbate joint pain. Our muscles and joints advisor Earle Logan goes into more detail about this in his article ‘Foods that make muscle and joint pain worse.’ Sometimes just cutting out these trigger foods can make a huge difference.
Slouching puts extra pressure on your joints. It limits your range of motion and makes it so much harder for your muscles to take the load off your joints and, in time, it can cause misalignment of the spine which eventually leads to even more joint stress and pain.
When experiencing pain, you are also more inclined to hold yourself differently, repositioning your body to take pressure off the painful area, but this is likely to put added pressure on other areas.
Also, if your joints, ligaments and tendons are affected, this can alter your whole posture, pulling on your muscles and causing both joint and muscle aches at the same time.
Sleeping poorly is notorious during menopause and research has proved that sleep deprivation increases our sensitivity to pain: a study from the University of California found that sleep deprivation can change the circuitry in the brain in ways that amplify pain.3
Low magnesium can also impact your pain perception,4 as well as causing sleeping problems. Poor levels of this essential nutrient are very common during menopause due to stress and digestive weakness.
Magnesium is also needed to keep your muscles relaxed, so low levels can cause them to tense up and become tight and stiff, which can impact the muscles that the control movement of the joints.
Any of your joints can be affected, from little joints such as fingers and toes, right up to the major joints such as hips and knees.
Feeling achy, stiff and creaky and sometimes experiencing a burning feeling around the joints are typical symptoms of menopausal joint pain. These may be worse in the morning, improving as the day continues. While pain can be localised to individual joints or a few joints, many women also describe a feeling of aching all over.
This is a bit of an unusual and surprising one but women have also reported instances where old injuries from childhood or more recently have been known to ache again. For example, a previously broken wrist feeling tender again or whiplash from a mild car crash 5 years ago returning.
So if a specific area is feeling tender, it is worthwhile thinking back to previous injuries or any instances of mild trauma which might have occurred to that area.
There are lots of simple and natural things you can do to help ease the discomfort of menopausal joint pain and to support your joint health. You should:
Since dehydration can have such a negative impact on your joints, one of the first things you should do if you experience joint pain is to make sure you are drinking enough water. You should be looking to drink around 1.5-2 litres of plain water (not artificially flavoured or sweetened) every day, over and above other drinks, such as coffee and tea.
If your joints are sore or creaky first thing then ease off as the day goes on, it may mean that you are really dehydrated during the night, so make sure that you drink a small glass of plain water about an hour before bed – this is really important if you are getting night sweats as these will dehydrate you further.
While exercising is probably the last thing you want to do when your joints feel achy and sore, staying active is very important as it helps to increase the strength and flexibility of your joints, as well as in the muscles that surround the joints. But this doesn’t mean you have to spend hours in the gym!
Good options include:
Weight-bearing exercises are thought to help protect our bone mineral density as we age and can also help build muscle, which takes the pressure off your joints.
Try to focus on strengthening the muscles around the hip and knee joints as these are the joints that need to support your entire body weight.
It is also important to always warm-up before any exercise. Our Muscles and Joints advisor Earle Logan has a simple warm-up routine for any type of exercise which you can try.
Also, be aware, high impact exercises such as jogging on hard roads can exacerbate joint pain, although this is often eased with rest or with the use of compression stockings. It’s best to limit exercises which involve lots of pounding on your joints such as running and jumping.
In contrast, low-impact non-weight bearing exercise can be gentler on the joints but still help to build strength and increase the range of movements. Therefore, incorporating flexibility and non-impact, stretch work into your exercise plans is also a good option.
Gentle stretching is great for maintaining mobility and movement. The cat-cow pose is a good example of a gentle pose which can help to improve the flexibility of the spine and stretch out tension, stiffness and discomfort in the back.
As an added bonus these gentler movements which you can also incorporate controlled breathing techniques with, can also help to promote relaxation and manage stress.
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