Prospective characterization of musculoskeletal symptoms in early stage breast cancer patients treated with aromatase inhibitors

Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2008 Sep;111(2):365-72. doi: 10.1007/s10549-007-9774-6. Epub 2007 Oct 6.


Purpose: Aromatase inhibitors (AIs) are increasingly used as adjuvant treatment of postmenopausal women with hormone receptor-positive breast cancer. AIs are commonly associated with musculoskeletal symptoms. The primary objective of this study was to describe the musculoskeletal symptoms that developed in the first 100 subjects enrolled who had at least 6 months follow-up.

Methods: Women with early stage hormone receptor-positive breast cancer were recruited into a multicenter randomized clinical trial to study the pharmacogenomics of two AIs, exemestane, and letrozole. Patients completed the Health Assessment Questionnaire (HAQ) and Visual Analog Scale (VAS) at baseline, 1, 3, 6, and 12 months to assess changes in function and pain, respectively. Patients were referred for evaluation by a rheumatologist if their HAQ and/or VAS scores exceeded a predefined threshold.

Results: Forty-four of 97 eligible patients (45.4%) met criteria for rheumatologic referral. Three patients were ineligible because of elevated baseline HAQ (2) and failure to initiate AI therapy (1). No baseline characteristics were significantly associated with referral. Median time to onset of symptoms was 1.6 months (range 0.4-10 months). Clinical and laboratory evaluation of patients evaluated by rheumatology suggested that the majority developed either non-inflammatory musculoskeletal symptoms or inflammation localized to tenosynovial structures. Thirteen patients discontinued AI therapy because of musculoskeletal toxicity after a median 6.1 months (range 2.2-13 months).

Conclusions: Musculoskeletal side effects were common in AI-treated patients, resulting in therapy discontinuation in more than 10% of patients. There are no identifiable pre-therapy indicators of risk, and the etiology remains elusive.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aromatase Inhibitors / adverse effects*
  • Autoimmunity
  • Breast Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Joint Diseases / chemically induced*
  • Middle Aged
  • Muscular Diseases / chemically induced*
  • Neoplasm Staging
  • Prospective Studies


  • Aromatase Inhibitors