I’d like to clear up some confusion regarding the use of estrogen to offset the symptoms of menopause. I won’t bury the lead; vaginal estrogen IS a safe menopause treatment for almost all menopausal women to use. Women using vaginally applied estrogen to minimize menopause symptoms do not increase their risk of heart disease, stroke, deep vein thrombosis, dementia or certain cancers including breast cancer in spite of what it might say in the Information for Patients (the package insert) which comes with this therapy.
But now, the back story.
The federally funded Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) Clinical Trials studies documented that oral estrogen or oral estrogen plus progesterone pills increased the risks for heart disease, stroke, deep vein thrombosis, dementia and certain cancers including breast cancer. These results from studies published in 2002 and 2004 have come into much clearer focus more recently. Unfortunately, the patient population evaluated in these studies included women who had pre-existing health conditions such as being overweight, having high blood pressure, etc., and most importantly the study participants outside of the “estrogen window” for safety FOR SYSTEMIC HORMONE THERAPY. This confounded the results of the study, since most of the study participants were over 60 years old, and some were 79 years old, when they started on their treatments. However, the WHI researchers continued to look into safer options for the correct patient population, in order to alleviate symptoms which hinder a women’s overall quality of life and sexual wellness.
The “Estrogen Window”
Following the confusing outcomes of the WHI Randomized Clinical Trials (referred to above), researchers began to closely review other WHI data. The latest publication from the Observational part of the WHI (Carolyn J. Crandall, MD, and colleagues. Breast cancer, endometrial cancer, and cardiovascular events in participants who used vaginal estrogen in the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study. Menopause: The Journal of The North American Menopause Society. Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 000-000, 2017. ePUB ahead of print) focuses on vaginal application of estrogen only for the treatment of vaginal symptoms of menopause. These included women’s experiences related to the deficiency of estrogen on the vagina, bladder and urethra, and particularly focused on the safety of vaginal estrogen treatments.
These symptoms investigated include:
- dyspareunia (insertional or deep pain during sex)
- lubrication/dryness issues during sex
- vaginal atrophy
- recurrent urinary tract infections
- painful urination
- generalized vulvar or vaginal discomfort
- bleeding after sex
The one common group of symptoms that vaginal estrogen does not mitigate is hot flashes, night sweats, and disturbed sleep.
Risks and Rewards
The team aimed to find out if and how severe health risks affected women who were using this vaginal form of estrogen. Cardiovascular disease, breast, colorectal, and endometrial cancer, as well as deadly blot clots were health events that warranted a risk assessment in this study.
The data showed that among women with an intact uterus, the risks of stroke, invasive breast cancer, colorectal cancer, endometrial cancer, and pulmonary embolism/deep vein thrombosis were not significantly different between vaginal estrogen users and nonusers.
I will emphasize that this was estrogen-only administration of therapy and none were taken by mouth. Oral therapies that travel through a patient’s digestive system and blood stream may also be safe for many, but that is not the administration route under the microscope in this paper recently published in the Menopause journal; by the North American Menopause Society. The “take home” message: vaginal estrogen can be safely used without fear of cardiovascular events caused by such therapy, after menopause.
It is important to visit a practice like ours that understands hormones and the role that they play during each phase of a woman’s life. The fluctuations you experience are not only normal, but very treatable. If you have questions about hormones, the menopause window, or whether you can safely use hormones, please call our office at (202) 293-1000 to make an appointment with our compassionate and knowledgeable staff.