Bone density begins to decline when women hit menopause. Along with the risks for osteoporosis for women in this age group, osteoarthritis and pain in the joints can also be a concern.
Taking estrogen reduced pain in the joints of postmenopausal women. However, estrogen did little to help reduce joint swelling, according to a recently published study.
Though the changes in pain were modest, the findings showed that women could consider hormone therapy as part of a treatment plan to ease joint pain.
Researchers, led by Rowan Chlebowski, MD, PhD, a lead researcher at the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute, aimed to see how estrogen by itself impacted joint pain in postmenopausal women.
The study included almost 11,000 postmenopausal women between 50 and 79 years of age who had similar levels of pain and swelling in their joints. In total, about 77 percent of the women had joint pain and 40 percent had joint swelling.
All the women had had hysterectomies, a procedure in which the uterus is removed and women no longer have their periods.
Half the women received daily estrogen pills and the rest received a placebo or fake pill.
The women were surveyed on the severity and frequency of their joint pain and swelling at the start of the study and a year after beginning treatment.
To see the effects of estrogen in the long term, a smaller segment of participants from the two groups was assessed three and six years after starting treatment.
A year after treatment, researchers found that 23.7 percent of the estrogen-alone group experienced less pain compared to about 20.8 percent in the placebo group.
When it came to joint swelling, however, estrogen therapy did not perform better than placebo. A total of 42.1 percent of women in the estrogen-alone group still had swelling, compared to 39.7 percent in the other group.
"Although further study is warranted, the current results, seen in a randomized clinical trial setting, support a moderate effect of exogenous estrogen on mitigating joint pain," researchers wrote in their report.
"Any consideration of estrogen use for this purpose must incorporate available information on the identified risks and benefits of menopausal hormone therapy, including the admonition to use the lowest dose for the shortest duration, consistent with the intended therapeutic goal," they wrote.
The number of women who experienced joint pain continued through the third year of treatment.
There were 47 fewer hip and knee joint replacements among the estrogen-only group compared to the placebo group, which accounted for a 1 percent difference in needed surgeries.
The study was published March 20 in Menopause: The Journal of the North American Menopause Society.
Funding for the study was provided by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health and the US Department of Health and Human Services.
One of the authors served as a consultant and on speakers' bureaus for Novartis, Amgen, AstraZeneca and Celgene. Another author was a board member for Proctor&Gamble.