AIMS--To study the effects of ovarian hormone replacement therapy (HRT) on bone mineral density and disease activity in postmenopausal women with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). METHOD--A placebo controlled double-blind study was carried out on 62 patients with RA, 22 on placebo and 40 on HRT (transdermal oestradiol patches twice weekly for 48 weeks plus norithisterone tablets when clinically indicated). Bone mineral density of spine, hip and wrist was measured at 0 and 48 weeks and clinical and laboratory measures of general well-being and disease activity at 0, 12, 24 and 48 weeks. RESULTS--Thirteen of 22 (59%) of placebo and 31 of 40 (78%) of the HRT group completed 48 weeks in the study. At entry, bone mineral density (BMD) values in the lumbar spine and femoral neck were similar to those in age and sex matched controls in both treatment groups, whereas at the distal radius, BMD was significantly reduced to approximately 50% of control values (both p < 0.001 from controls). In the HRT group, spine BMD increased significantly by a median of +0.94% at 48 weeks (p = 0.024), but did not change significantly in the placebo group. BMD at the femoral neck and distal radius did not change in either group. In the HRT group, there was significant improvement in well being as assessed by the Nottingham Health Care Profile (p < 0.01) and in the articular index (p < 0.05). There were no significant changes in ESR or CRP in either group. CONCLUSION--Transdermal HRT was well tolerated, increased well being, reduced articular index and increased lumbar spine bone density over a one year period in postmenopausal women with RA. Although no laboratory evidence was found of a disease modifying effect, the symptomatic benefits and improvements in bone density indicate that HRT may be a valuable adjunct to conventional antirheumatic therapy in RA.
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