From headaches to hip pain, why women's symptoms may be mis-diagnosed.
We are often aware of the more obvious menopausal symptoms like hot flushes, difficulty sleeping and the disappearance of periods but recent research has identified up to 34 symptoms that can be attributed to a depletion in female hormones and as awareness grows, some of the more early subtle symptoms are now being recognised. Fifty percent of menopausal women suffer with joint pains and muscular aches and pains with the neck, jaw, shoulders, wrists and elbows being the most commonly affected. It's not surprising that in a clinic like ours we see many women presenting with issues such as plantar fasciitis, shoulder pain and lateral hip pain which may have strong link to their hormonal status.
So what actually happens in menopause ?
Menopause is a completely natural phase of life and is classed as officially starting when a woman's periods have stopped for one year. It's triggered by the ovaries gradually reducing the production of the hormones oestrogen and progesterone but this isn't like turning off a tap. Just as puberty can last for several years in total ( ahhh... those mood swings ) menopause can also last for years - indeed the average span of menopause is eight years in total - with peri-menopause starting on average at age 45. Female hormones have a hugely protective effect on many of the systems in our body from cardiovascular to our bones and the musculoskeletal system ( MSK ) basically our joints, muscles and tendons. The main culprit in menopause is the reduction in oestrogen in our body and it's effect on collogen.
Why does menopause give problems with joints ?
Collagen is the most abundent form of protein in our bodies and makes up the lions share of all of our soft tissues including ligaments, cartilage, tendons and muscle. Menopause not only causes a reduction in the amount of collagen but also a change in the tiny oestrogen receptor cells in these tissues . Oestrogen has a mildly anti-inflammatory effect and as the amount of this hormone is reduced this painkilling affect is lost and the areas can become more sensitive to pain ( hyperalgesia ) leading to a range of symptoms including :
Muscle & joint aches and pains
Reduced muscle strength
Pins & needles
These symptoms are often symmetrical, can mimic an inflammatory condition and as such it's not uncommon for many women to receive a mis-diagnosis of a Rheumatological condition such as Fibromyalgia.
So what can be done ?
Menopause is completely individual experience for every woman . Some women seem to sail through with minimal symptoms whilst others suffer dreadfully and can find it both life altering and at times quite depressing. The physical changes in the body are enough to cope with let alone the huge psychological shift that takes place as a woman moves into the post menopausal phase of her life.
Hormone Replacement Therapy ( HRT ) has, quite rightly, been under scrutiny in the past twenty years and there has been much debate over whether it is both safe and necessary, after all we have just said that menopause is a completely normal phase of life. However we also know that it brings many potential chronic problems that may be helped by having some help from HRT. A chest infection is a natural thing but we still take anti-biotics for it to stop the infection worsening and causing more damage to our lungs. Like all therapies the more they are used and studied the more refined they become and the new style body-identical HRT carries far fewer risks than the old style HRT which much of the previous advice was based upon. The new style drugs are being used more and more ( often in gel or patch format ) and they pose less risk and far more benefit especially when started under the age of 60.
Any HRT regimes should of course be discussed with your GP and many women do choose a more natural route but if you are genuinely struggling and finding it hard to cope then sometimes a trial of HRT for 2-3 months may be worth considering to see if it is beneficial. If you don't like it or it doesn't help then simply stop taking it - it's not like a heart or diabetic medication that you must take. Talk to your GP for their advice, like all medicines it needs an individualised approach but for many women they find it absolutely transformative.
Easy natural ways to help alleviate symptoms !
Eat well - A Mediterranian style diet with lots of plant foods, oily fish, fruits, nuts, soya, chick peas all help to boost calcium and vitamin D, both important for protecting the skeleton. GP's may advise a Vit D suppliment to help. Limiting caffeine intake can also help as it has been shown to increase severity of hot flushes.
Stop smoking - smoking has been linked with an increased chance of an early menopause and women who smoke have increased frequency and severity of hot flushes. It's just another good reason to kick the fags !
Limit alcohol - more anectodal evidence but many women find alcohol makes hot flushes, mood swings and night sweats. Alcohol is a well known depressant and menopausal women are particularly vulnerabel to low mood so limiting intake would seem wise.
Keep cool - natural fibres like cotton and linen are more breathable and can help to cope with the sweats. Dressing in layers seems the best bet so that they can be removed and changed if they become wet. A friend found that lying on the cooling mat she used for her dog in hot weather was really soothing.
Keep active - Muscle is made of collagen and as those collagen fibres decrease loss of muscle mass and strength is a harsh reality. As much as I hate the phrase ' use it or lose it ' I'm afraid in this instance it is very true. Moderate exercise has protective mechanisms for the muscles and bones and we know that in the long run it will help build a stronger body, keep the heart and lungs in good shape and keep you socially active too !
Acupuncture & Reflexology - some evidence that Acupuncture helps to limit and minimise menopausal symptoms like hot flushes and Reflexology, indeed any therapy, that helps you relax and focus on self can help with coping with symptoms
We are always here to help and happy to have an informal chat if you are not sure which direction is best for you, feel free to give us a ring to discuss your needs.