Low-dose HRT patches carry 26% less risk than oral therapy

July 15, 2010

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) skin patches containing low doses of estrogen carry less risk of stroke than oral therapy and may represent a safer alternative.

Key Points

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) skin patches containing low doses of estrogen carry less risk of stroke than oral therapy and may represent a safer alternative, according to a study conducted by researchers at the Lady Davis Research Institute of the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, published June 4 in the British Medical Journal.

The study assessed the risk of stroke associated with HRT in post-menopausal women in the United Kingdom, using data from the General Practice Research Database (GPRD). Researchers found that low-dose patches carry 26% less risk than oral forms of HRT, though the risk is elevated with high-dose patches.

For the oral form of HRT, low-dose estrogen was defined as ≤0.625 mg of equine estrogen or ≤2 mg of estradiol, and high dose as >0.625 mg of equine estrogen or >2 mg of estradiol.

Dr Suissa pointed out that this is a sufficiently large study (almost 1 million women) to examine the risk of stroke associated with various ways of delivering HRT.

"It is also sufficiently large to evaluate the risk with lower and higher doses," he added.

Each case was matched to 59,958 controls. "The risk of stroke was not increased with use of low estrogen-dose patches compared with no use, whereas the risk was increased with high-dose patches," Dr Suissa said.

The use of oral HRT increased the rate of stroke by 25% to 30%. "Our study suggests that there are formulations of HRT that may be safer than others," he said. "This study is important because previous trials have focused on the risks associated with oral HRT formulations, never the patch."

A large, multicenter heart disease prevention study, part of the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) study, found that estrogen-alone hormone therapy had no effect on coronary heart disease risk but increased the risk of stroke for postmenopausal women.

According to Dr Suissa, the WHI was a trial of an oral HRT. "We closely replicated the findings of WHI and meta-analyses for oral agents that reported a 30% increase in the risk of stroke, while our study found 25% to 30% increases with this formulation. Our study, however, was able to study the patch, at low and high doses, which the WHI did not and could not."

This study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and in part by an unrestricted grant from Organon, a maker of HRT but not of the patch.