Overview

Estrogen may play a role in the development of osteoarthritis (OA). Estrogen is a hormone found in both men and women, though women have higher amounts of it.

During menopause, women experience a decline in estrogen levels. OA is most commonly seen in postmenopausal women, which has led researchers to explore the possible relationship between OA and menopause.

Keep reading to learn more about this connection.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis refers to any painful inflammation and stiffness of the joints. In addition to OA, the two other forms of arthritis are:

OA is the most common form of arthritis. The inflammation and pain of OA results from the breakdown of cartilage between joints. Commonly affected joints include knees, shoulders, and hips.

What does the research say?

In a peer-reviewed article published in 2009, researchers looked at past studies on estrogen and arthritis, and found evidence to support a connection between estrogen and joint health. The researchers were unable to determine the exact role estrogen plays in OA, however.

In another review of studies that looked at incidence and risk factors of OA, researchers again noted the inclusive results regarding the role that estrogen plays in OA. They did agree that OA is most commonly seen in women who have gone through menopause.

Researchers have also looked at the use of estrogen replacement therapy (ERT) for the treatment of OA. Data on the efficacy of this treatment method is inconclusive.

In a study from 2016, researchers looked at the use of estrogen and selective estrogen receptor modulators in the management of OA symptoms. The researchers found some promising results, but recommended the need for higher-quality studies before suggesting the use of this treatment.

Is ERT safe?

ERT is sometimes used to manage symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes and night sweats. ERT may have side effects and increase your risk of heart problems and breast cancer. A doctor is more likely to recommend ERT if you have minimal risk factors for heart problems and cancers, and are of younger age. They’ll likely give you the minimum effective dose and monitor you closely for possible side effects.

Learn more: Is hormone replacement therapy right for you? »

Risk factors for OA

You may have an additional risk for OA if you:

  • are overweight or obese
  • are over the age of 50
  • are female
  • have a family history of OA
  • have a history of injuries to a joint or joints
  • have deformities of the bone
  • have a nutritional deficiency, such as omega-3 fatty acids, or vitamins C and E
  • have diabetes
  • regularly participate in demanding physical work
  • use tobacco or illegal substances

Symptoms of OA

Symptoms of OA include:

  • pain in and around the affected joint
  • buildup of fluid in the joint, also known as effusion
  • limited range of motion
  • cracking and grating noises
  • weakness and stiffness in muscles
  • bone spurs, which are extra bones that form around your joints

Symptoms vary according to the severity and location of the impacted joint.

Seeing a doctor for OA

If you chronically experience at least two symptoms of OA, see your doctor. They can provide a proper assessment of your joint and symptoms.

Your doctor will likely perform some tests, including:

  • a series of physical examinations to evaluate your range of motion, strength, and joint
  • an X-ray to see if you have cartilage loss or bone spurs
  • an MRI scan of the joint to see specific tears in soft tissues

Treatment

OA is a chronic condition. There is no cure. You can manage the symptoms of OA a variety of ways, however:

  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Perform low-impact exercises such as swimming, yoga, and biking.
  • Eat a balanced diet that includes nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D.
  • Take anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB).
  • Take pain-relieving medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol).
  • Undergo physical therapy.

Your doctor may also prescribe medications to reduce inflammation, such as diclofenac (Voltaren-XR). In some situations, a cortisone injection from your doctor may also help reduce your pain.

Sometimes surgery, such as an arthroscopy or joint replacement, is recommended. Surgery is usually reserved for severe cases.

Read more: Osteoarthritis treatments »

Outlook

Older women are at an increased risk for OA. It appears that menopause and estrogen levels play a role in this relationship, but more research is needed.

You may not be able to prevent OA, but there are some things you can do to help maintain joint health:

  • Exercise regularly.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Avoid repetitive tasks, which can overwork your joints.
  • If you smoke, quit smoking.
  • Eat a balanced, varied diet that includes a variety of vitamins and nutrients.