Do you feel like you ache often and certainly more than you used to? You’re not alone. Many women experience menopause muscle pain, aches and even spasms. While there are many potential reasons for this, there are a few common culprits. We’ve got some exercises and tips to prevent painful cramps.
Oestrogen and pain sensitivity
The bottom line is, menopause changes the way we feel pain, whether you are dealing with long term conditions or new problems. Your changing hormone levels during perimenopause and beyond are to blame for menopause muscle aches, as explained in Why your hormonal changes are making your body ache.
Quite simply, the brain’s centre for pain acts efficiently in response to pain when oestrogen levels are high. Endorphins and enkephalins are released, which are sometimes described as the body’s painkillers, and they naturally help to reduce the amount of pain we experience.
As oestrogen decreases, we feel pain more intensely. Interestingly, even women who take hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can still notice an increased sensitivity to pain, so there is no simple fix for this frustrating symptom.
Oestrogen and inflammation
Inflammation is a natural process during which the body tries to heal itself, which can be useful and helps us to heal from injuries and illness. In other cases, inflammation can be painful and even cause certain types of illness, such as inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis, among others.
Oestrogen has an anti-inflammatory effect and when levels decrease, there can be an increase in inflammation. Those with conditions that involve inflammation can flare up and may become more troublesome. Injuries can also feel more painful and take longer to heal.
To avoid injury, be sure to warm up and cool down properly when exercising and incorporate some stretching into your routine. Listen to your body – if you notice that a particular activity is causing pain or discomfort, try to find different ways to approach the task.
If you find that a pre-existing medical condition is becoming difficult to manage, talk to your doctor.
Watch out for osteoarthritis
As your hormone levels change, several conditions which cause muscle aches and spasms can crop up postmenopause, such as osteoarthritis. Often known as the ‘wear and tear’ form of the disease, it primarily affects the joints but can cause muscle pain and spasm.
You can also suffer from referred pain, such as arthritis in the hip is often felt running down the thigh and into the knee. It happens because of the routes taken by nerves supplying these areas.
Osteoarthritis is more common after menopause for several reasons, one of which is the loss of oestrogen’s anti-inflammatory effect and its role in reducing the turnover of bone regrowth and mass. You cannot prevent osteoarthritis altogether. But you can minimise your risk by reducing activity and exercise which puts excessive strain on your joints such as heavy weight training and frequent running.
Check your salts, vitamins and other hormones
Talk to your doctor if you are struggling with menopause and muscle pain or spasms. They might want to take a blood test to check for changes to levels of thyroid hormone, calcium, magnesium and vitamin D. Anaemia, low haemoglobin, can also cause similar symptoms, including leg cramps.
While these problems are not specific to menopause, it is important that they are considered as possible causes for your symptoms.
Improving posture and spinal health
Poor posture is a common cause of muscular pain and spasm. Desk jobs or a sedentary lifestyle can make it all too easy to end up sitting in a slouched position, or thrusting your neck forward to see the computer screen.
Our top tips
- Use a chair which provides good support to your lower back
- Ensure that the back of the chair is as close to 90 degrees as possible
- Sit with your legs should be slightly lower than your hips
- If there are armrests, they should be out to the side
- Consider using a footrest if you experience muscle spasms while sitting
- Make sure that any screens you use for work are at eye level
- Take regular breaks to walk around and stretch your legs
What exercises can help your posture?
Create a workspace that is mindful of your body, give yourself enough space and position your accessories/ tools (such as computers) optimally to reduce the incidence and severity of cramps.
The optimal office set up
It is recommended that you take a break from sitting at your desk every 30-40 minutes.
If you can’t leave your desk, here are some effective stretches and strengthening exercises that can relieve cramps and help you toward your fitness goals.
1. Prevent cramp
These stretches should be held for 20 seconds for three repetitions (3 x 20 secs). They help to activate and loosen the deep spinal muscles, shoulders, calves and hamstrings which are vulnerable to regular cramps.
2. Build strength
Medial leg lift – 10 repetitions in 3 sets (10 x 3). For progression, hold your legs for 10 seconds when they are directly out in front of you
Knee to chest raises – 12 repetitions in 2 sets (12 x 2). For progression, on the leg extension, draw a star sign in the air with your toes, attempt this for as many repetitions as you are able.
But wait! That’s not all! Your sleep position can be just as important as daytime posture. It can also be a key factor in our quality of sleep and contribute to recovery from injuries or illnesses.
It is also important to check in with your doctor if you have any persistent back pain or spasm. This is because women who have gone through menopause are at higher risk of having ‘silent’ fractures in their spinal column, as well as certain other medical conditions. As our bones tend to thin due to hormonal changes (a condition known as osteopaenia or osteoporosis), fractures can sometimes even happen when you have not had any fall or noticeable injury.
Sleeping on your back (supine)
Place a pillow (or two) under the folds of your knees so that your knees are at a level slightly higher than your pelvis. This position reduces the pressure on the lower back. Increased pressure on the lower back can lead to pain and disc degeneration which can interfere with sleep as well as cause daytime discomfort.
Sleeping on your side
Place a pillow under your head to ensure that your neck is well supported and roughly parallel with the mattress. Lie on your chosen side with knees slightly bent (about 70 degrees) and a pillow placed between them. This again relieves pressure on the lower back. To prevent cramps and pins and needles, lay your lower arm out straight. For the upper arm, place a pillow next to your tummy and rest your hand on top of it. This prevents stress on the shoulder joint by keeping the arm slightly raised. And yes, you may need to buy more pillows.
Menopause muscle pain
Sometimes, aches and muscle pain are put down to the menopause itself rather than any condition in particular. Talk to your doctor, as there are a number of things you can do to help.
A generally healthy lifestyle is always important and can help with many different types of pain. Think about a healthy diet, exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and stopping smoking.
Some women find hormone replacement therapy (HRT) helpful in treating the general aches and menopause muscle pain, however scientific evidence for this is limited. HRT has been shown to help tackle symptoms that can contribute to pain, including poor sleep and mood changes. Read more about the HRT debate here
Muscle pain and spasm are common in menopause and yet can be a complex problem to solve. If you are experiencing any pain which does not resolve after a couple of weeks or spasms which keep happening, talk to your doctor. They will be able to help you find out the cause for your symptoms and ensure that you get the treatment you need.