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01/27/2014 12:21 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2014

Hormone Replacement Therapy May Have A Scary Side Effect, Study Shows

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Those on both sides of the hormone replacement therapy debate have listed the various pros and cons of the menopause treatment. But a new study reveals the therapy may have a troubling side effect.

Researchers at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden believe HRT use could increase the risk for acute pancreatitis in a woman's lifetime. A study looked at data from over 31,000 postmenopausal women between the ages of 48 and 83. The results, published today in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, reveal that women who actively or previously used HRT had a 1.5 greater likelihood of developing acute pancreatitis than those who never had tried it.

Acute pancreatitis is an inflammation and swelling of the pancreas, which causes severe stomach pain, swelling, and can even lead to death.

At the beginning of the study, 42 percent of participants were using HRT and 12 percent had used it in the past. The risk for acute pancreatitis appeared to be higher in women who had used HRT for upwards of 10 years and those who used systemic therapy for hot flashes, in particular.

Opinions on HRT have been mixed. In 2002 a health task force concluded the risks of the therapy, including increase risk of stroke and cancer, outweigh the benefits. Meanwhile, proponents say it's much safer now with improved drugs and can even help reduce the risk of heart disease.

"These findings, though speculative, may suggest that exogenous estrogen induces some persistent change in the pancreas for which the duration of exposure may be important," author Viktor Oskarsson said in a release. Oskarsson says additional studies are needed and that the results, if confirmed, could help physicians in prescribing HRT in the future.

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