How to manage joint stiffness and pain caused by hormone blockers

PORi oncology and breast cancer rehabilitation therapist, Gabriella Kourie, shares easy ways to curb joint pain and stiffness caused by hormone blockers.

Some types of breast cancer are affected by hormones. These are known as oestrogen or progesterone receptor positive breast cancers. This means that the cancer cells have receptors that attach to oestrogen and progesterone in the body, which aid the cancer to grow.

The treatment used to fight this type of breast cancer is targeted, with the specific role of either lowering oestrogen levels or stopping oestrogen from attaching to the receptors on the cancer cells. This treatment is called hormone/endocrine therapy. There are several types of hormone therapies that are prescribed to patients based on various factors, such as menopausal status, bone density, history (if any) of arthritis, and the stage of the cancer.

As a patient taking hormone blockers, you may experience side effects, such as joint pain and stiffness, amongst others. Side effects aren’t guaranteed and, for most women, symptoms improve with time. It’s important to discuss any side effects that you experience with your doctor. 

Hormone blockers can be prescribed at various points of your treatment. It’s usually prescribed for a period of five to 10 years after surgery or radiation. 

Knowing where the pain is

Patients may have decreased bone density and an increased risk of osteoporosis in both premenopausal and postmenopausal women. The onset of arthralgia or arthritic pain causes the shoulders, wrists and hands to become painful, swollen and stiff. Overtime your grip strength may decrease and deformities in the hands and digits may also develop. This may result in increased efforts and/or difficulties in doing day-to-day activities. 

By doing the correct guided exercises prescribed by a healthcare practitioner (occupational therapist, physiotherapist and biokineticist), you reduce the pain, stiffness and swelling in the effected joints. Other positive benefits include increased joint mobility and flexibility as well as the prevention of any deformities from forming. 

Women tend to feel the joint pain and stiffness in their fingers and hand joints as well as their shoulders and hips. Pain is often worsened in the morning but other triggers may include over or underuse of the body, stress, infection and temperature (cold weather can cause joint stiffness). 

Management techniques to help with joint pain and stiffness

Some of these lifestyle changes and home implementations may improve your joint pain and stiffness.

  • Taking a calcium and vitamin D supplement is important for bone density and strength. You can increase your calcium intake with your diet by consuming: milk and dairy products; dried fruits, such as apricots and figs; small fish, such as sardines and pilchards, as well as dark leafy greens, like spinach, kale, turnips and broccoli. 
  • Exercises that put strain on the joints, such as running and lifting weights, should be avoided. Idle behaviour can also induce pain in the affected joints.
  • Stretching and lightly resistive exercises prescribed are designed to give the joints ‘just the right amount’ of activity and movement. 
  • Over-the-counter pain medications may also assist in pain management. Speak to your doctor about which medication is best for you while on hormone therapy.
  • Temperature therapy, such as using hot and cold sources, can ease the joint pain. Heat is to be used when there is joint pain and cold is to be used when there is pain accompanied with swelling.

Consult an oncology rehabilitation therapist to provide you with the right exercise and stretching programme for you. Please ensure that you go for regular bone-density check-ups while taking hormone blockers.

Although the side effects of hormone blockers aren’t guaranteed, it’s important to monitor your symptoms and to gain control of them early, to prevent fallout of taking the medication and to ensure you have an excellent quality of life.

Gabriella Kourie is a qualified occupational therapist. She further trained and qualified 
as a PORi oncology and breast cancer rehabilitation therapist and is currently qualifying in Lymphoedema Assessment 
and Treatment.

MEET THE EXPERT – Gabriella Kourie

Gabriella Kourie is a qualified occupational therapist. She further trained and qualified as a PORi oncology and breast cancer rehabilitation therapist and is currently qualifying in Lymphoedema Assessment and Treatment.

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