Objective: To examine whether estrogen replacement therapy (ERT) prevents worsening of radiographic knee osteoarthritis (OA) in elderly women.
Methods: A total of 551 women ages 63-91 years (mean age 71) in the Framingham Study were followed up from biennial examination 18 (1983-1985) to examination 22 (1992-1993). Data on postmenopausal ERT were obtained every 2 years. Subjects were classified into 3 groups according to their estrogen use at biennial examination 18: never users (n = 349), past users (n = 162), and current users (n = 40). Women received anteroposterior weight-bearing knee radiographs at examinations 18 and 22. Using the Kellgren and Lawrence criteria, global radiographic knee OA was assessed, (grade range 0-4) and individual radiographic features, such as osteophytes and joint space narrowing, were scored from 0 to 3. Worsening was defined as either development of radiographic OA that was not present at baseline (incident OA) or progression of baseline radiographic OA by > or =1 Kellgren and Lawrence grade (progressive OA). Potential confounding factors included age, body mass index, weight change, smoking, knee injury, physical activity level, and bone mineral density at the femoral neck.
Results: During 8 years of followup, 17.4% of knee radiographic scores worsened by 1 grade and 5.8% by 2 or 3 grades among never users of ERT. Among current estrogen users, only 11.7% of knee radiographic scores worsened by 1 grade and none worsened by more than 1 grade. After adjusting for age and other potential confounding factors, the relative risk of incident radiographic knee OA in comparison with never users of estrogen was 0.8 (95% confidence interval [95% CI] 0.5-1.4) in past users and 0.4 (95% CI 0.1-3.0) in current users. Current use of estrogen also showed a trend toward decreased risk of progressive knee OA compared with never use (odds ratio [OR] 0.5, 95% CI 0.1-2.9). When both incident and progressive radiographic knee OA cases were combined, current ERT use had a 60% decreased risk compared with never use (OR 0.4, 95% CI 0.1-1.5).
Conclusion: This is the first prospective cohort study to examine the effects of ERT on radiographic knee OA. The results indicate that current use of ERT had a moderate, but not statistically significant, protective effect against worsening of radiographic knee OA among elderly white women. These findings corroborate those of cross-sectional studies and point further to a potential benefit of female hormones in OA.