HRT, acupuncture, yoga, massage – and fixing the cramps
Six month’s ago I was hit by cramp so sore I could hardly get out of the swimming pool. Trying to drive home after the swim session was almost impossible due to repeated and very painful feet and leg cramps. It happened again the next week and until last night I was too scared to go to the pool again.
During the previous two years, I had noticed a growing number of cramps – and in a wider range of places in my body. What started as foot cramps at night, turned into calf and quad cramps so bad I would end up with torn muscles. They could strike at any time, such as when pulling on my socks, while stretching at night (quite often when I was asleep), while doing yoga and even when I attempted some stretches after a run or cycle session.
Last summer, I noticed the cramps moving to my hands and shoulders. I would turn the lid on a tub of something and my hand seized up into a cramp. And earlier this year, I was hit by the strangest of cramps in my upper abdominal muscles.
I couldn’t wear even the smallest of heels on boots and shoes when going out to the pub or into town so I was forced into flats and trainers all the time. I wouldn’t normally mind but when you really can’t do something you normally take for granted it’s frustrating.
These cramps were limiting my exercise routine and making me feel depressed. Of course, like any right minded (?!) 21st century person I also had a quick search on the internet and discovered I may well be in the first throes of all kinds of life-limiting diseases and illnesses. This made me more depressed.
I had not yet turned 49 yet I was being restricted in my normal levels of activity, which I found very hard to take. It was becoming painful to walk or run uphill due to a feeling that my calf muscles would tear off the bone. When cycling, I got cramp in my feet and legs. After cycling my hands and shoulders cramped up. And swimming was out of the question.
Researching the whys of my cramps
I am a person who likes to find solutions to problems. So I started researching the reason for cramps online. I asked around my friends. I was told by one friend (female and a little older) that white wine caused her to have leg cramps at night. Several men told me that drinking the vinegar of pickled onions stopped their leg cramps while cycling. These men were in their late 40s and early 50s.
I looked on menopause and peri-menopause websites and forums (yes, sorry to mention this topic but it’s very relevant to women of my age) and discovered that while cramps were not always mentioned in a long list of other issues, such as hot sweats, itchy skin, dry eyes, heavy periods, irregular periods, weakening of the bladder, reduced muscle strength, putting on weight etc, many times there was anecdotal evidence that women suffered with sore joints, tight muscles and cramps (mainly at night and first thing in the morning).
All this got me thinking. I have no doubt that as we age our muscles become tighter and less supple. It’s a natural process of the body wearing out (rather like becoming long-sighted), although there is a lot we can do to stay flexible including stretching, massage and yoga. I believe that some women of menopausal age (that is somewhere between early 40s and late 50s) do have major problems with cramps and tight muscles but many do not relate this to the menopause. I have discovered this by asking friends and acquaintances of my age.
There does seem to be some evidence to show that reduced hormones in the menopause causes less flexible muscles (and joints).
But I thought I was too fit to be affected
For some reason I thought I would sail through the menopause without issues. I have no idea why I thought this and I have been proven completely wrong. Just because I have stayed fit and healthy does not mean I will avoid the effects of hormone changes. Oestrogen and progesterone levels change. Fact. I have been hit by my fair share of the above list (and more I won’t reveal because they are too personal!) but the one symptom that has made me feel the most miserable is the cramps.
Attempts to cure the cramps
I tried the picked onion juice! It didn’t work for me (and it tastes disgusting). I tried the far tastier tonic water (with quinine) remedy. In the interests of medical research I swapped wine for G&T for weeks. Nothing changed. I had my blood tested for deficiencies in magnesium, iron, calcium etc. They were all fine. I used magnesium sprays, took magnesium tablets, added iron rich foods and salt to my diet and I drank tonic water almost constantly. I definitely wasn’t dehydrated either.
I tried my very hardest to do more stretching and attend more yoga classes. I used to go to regular yoga but I have somehow got out of the habit. I tried on-line yoga sessions but never felt motivated to continue. I made the excuse that I didn’t have enough time.
I tried compression socks and tights. They didn’t do much at all. I moved to using a kneeling chair and a stand-up desk. This has helped with a generally sore back and perhaps this has contributed to a generally more flexible body.
Massage, acupuncture and strengthening
In the meantime, I sought sports massage. Fiona Campbell on the south-side of Glasgow has magic hands and a great understanding of the sporty body. She has helped immensely with monthly sessions, trying to fix tight muscles all over my body. I think she would need a full week of hands-on massage to make me supple again but I do always feel much looser and released after seeing her. I love her hot stones for warming up the muscles and the way she sorts my back and legs.
But she is very busy and her clinic is located up to an hour’s drive (in busy traffic) from me so I looked for something more local as a supplement.
I met Linda Canning, an osteopath at Bearsden Osteopaths, at a triathlon running session. She identified I had a strange running style. She was right! At that point I was so stiff and sore I was running very awkwardly. She offered to see what she could do. Through regular sessions (weekly and now every two to three weeks) she has managed to soften, lengthen and generally ease my old body into a happier and less taut place.
Linda understands the body and its alignment very well and had helped me to understand why everything feels so awkward and tight.
Her sessions include a range of treatments, such as acupuncture for my tight calf muscles (I know people say this doesn’t work but it really has for me). My calves are so much less stressed and taut. She does muscle massage, body manipulation and lots of advice about better movement and exercise, as well as stretches to strengthen and lengthen my body.
Linda is intent on making me stand – and therefore do exercise – more naturally and she has made good progress over the months. None of this is cheap, of course, but it’s worth the money to be able to feel more normal again.
A short daily yoga workout
I have also been given a 20-minute at-home personalised yoga session thanks to Steph at the Kali Collective in Glasgow. Steph is one of lululemon‘s yoga teachers, along with one of my favourite yoga teachers Mark Russell. (Lululemon hosts free Saturday morning yoga sessions in Glasgow.)
Anyway, I saw Steph for a 1.5 hour session. She was patient and thoughtful and somehow managed to tailor a daily 20-minute lower body work out that I have been able to easily do on a very regular basis (ok, not every day but about five times a week). This has helped a lot, too.
And I’ve started HRT
HRT has had a bad press in the last decade but when I sought advice from clever doctor friends and the very useful website Menopause Matters I discovered that the risks of HRT are now thought to be much less than once suggested. Yes, there is still a slightly increased risk of breast cancer after five years of HRT but that is less than if I was, for example, obese and not on HRT.
No one could tell me if the HRT would help with my cramps but it has been shown to alleviate all kinds of other problems, such as sweats, itchy skin, brain fog, memory loss, joint pain, heavy and irregular periods, dry mouth, dry eyes, etc, bloody etc. There are side effects of HRT which seem to be exactly the same as that list, as well as weight gain, but I was willing to give it a try.
It took me about six months to feel brave enough to try – and now I have been on the hormone replacement therapy for almost four months. Many symptoms have improved although I do still feel some other symptoms (I think more mildly).
Take a look at the BBC programme by Kirsty Wark called the Insiders’ Guide to the Menopause. It is quite enlightening although it would have been better to see a series of programmes devoted to the topic so more in-depth information could be revealed. Maybe this will happen in the future.
Have I cured the cramps?
I am not cramp-free but I am a great deal improved. I have been doing all or most of the above for about six months and I feel a lot better. I have less cramps in general and last night, for the first time in six months, I swam without being severely affected by cramps in my legs. I felt a twinge in my foot after 49 very easy and gentle lengths of the pool but that felt promising.
I can run, walk mountains, do spin and cycle again without being forced to stop with crippling tightness in my muscles followed by cramp. I do still feel like I have tight muscles (far tighter than in my whole life) but I also feel as though there is hope.
I was becoming quite low about this stage of my life and what the future might hold. I do know I’ll never be as fast as I once was and I will need to maintain my flexibility and muscle suppleness for the rest of my life now. However, I feel now that I might be able to carry on without too many restrictions, albeit at a less furious pace, for the foreseeable future.
If I hear a doctor say to me again: “Well at your age you need to slow down,” I will tell them that shouldn’t be the case. I will say there are things we can all do to maintain a good level of speed and fitness.
I felt so uplifted after my swim last night that I am about to book the flights to Germany to take up my place in the European Age Group Triathlon Championships. (Somehow, despite the cramps and my general lack of training I qualified last summer at the Strathclyde triathlon.) (The good thing about being in age groups is that, presumably most women in my age category are dealing with the dreaded MP, too.)
I also went to see Menopause the Musical with my dear friend Ellen. Despite the subject matter it was one of the funniest evenings of entertainment I can recall in my recent MP years. It seems us women are in it together and actually we’ll be ok in the end and we have each other to lean on as we go through it. I felt uplifted by the show.
Now, I am off to do my yoga session before I start work. I can’t really be bothered but once I start I’ll be fine – and it’s not too much of a daily chore for such improved results.
I will also continue with Fiona and Linda and try to make it to more of Mark’s sessions and head along to Steph for another one-to-one so she can tailor an upper body yoga home workout for me.
And I don’t plan to come off the HRT any time soon.
As a nice addition, the G-Force says I am a lot happier person to be with and seemingly in myself. I have no idea if that is the HRT making me less grumpy or the fact I can do a bit more exercise with less pain. Either way, things are getting better.
I hope this blog might help other women who like to stay fit but who have been wading through the thick treacle-like health problems of the fecking menopause.