For years, one of the most commonly prescribed treatments for osteoarthritis has been taking glucosamine and chondroitin. In fact, millions of people take these supplements daily to treat this condition, and sales of glucosamine supplements alone nearly reached $2 billion in 2008, according to WomensHealth.gov. These supplements have long been thought to help slow the progression of osteoarthritis, but recently their effectiveness has been called into question. In this article, the real results from taking these supplements are explored along with the possibility of using other treatment options for osteoarthritis.
First and foremost, it’s important to understand what glucosamine and chondroitin are and why they have been thought to help with osteoarthritis in particular. The following are overviews of these two compounds and what their function is in the body:
Glucosamine is a compound that is found naturally in the human body within healthy cartilage. However, for the purposes of treating osteoarthritis, glucosamine is extracted from the tissues of animals such as crabs and lobsters and then taken as a dietary supplement. Doctors have long prescribed this supplement for osteoarthritis because it is believed that glucosamine helps with limiting the breakdown of joint cartilage while also helping to build up more cartilage.
Glucosamine supplements are taken in one of two forms for the treatment of osteoarthritis: glucosamine sulfate or glucosamine hydrochloride. Glucosamine hydrochloride tends to be absorbed more easily by the body and requires smaller doses.
Chondroitin sulfate is another compound found naturally in the body’s connective tissues. This compound is part of a protein molecule that helps cartilage to retain its elastic properties while slowing the breakdown of cartilage. In addition, it is believed that chondroitin can have an anti-inflammatory effect, which can help reduce painful swelling in the joints that often occurs with osteoarthritis. Like glucosamine, the compound is extracted from animal cartilage (in this case, that of sharks or tracheas) to be made into a dietary supplement.
Do They Work?
Over the years, a number of studies have been conducted in order to evaluate the effectiveness of glucosamine and chondroitin when it comes to treating osteoarthritis. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these studies have discovered that both glucosamine and chondroitin supplements appear to have no healing effect on symptoms of osteoarthritis.
These studies looked at the effects of glucosamine and chondroitin taken together or when just one of the supplements was taken. Meanwhile, a control group took a placebo in place of the supplements. After evaluating all of their data, the researchers found that glucosamine and chondroitin supplements had no significant effect on lessening joint pain or narrowing the spaces between painful joints by building up cartilage. In short, these supplements are no longer considered to be an effective treatment for the symptoms of osteoarthritis.
However, there is one catch. Many researchers did find that some individuals who have been taking these supplements for months or years believe that they are seeing positive effects on their symptoms. Since both glucosamine and chondroitin have no history of causing any harm to those who take them as supplements, doctors have suggested that those who find them to be beneficial continue taking the supplements for their condition. Although it is likely a placebo effect that is relieving their symptoms, the supplements pose no harm so continuing to take them will not be detrimental to the individual’s health.
Meanwhile, most doctors are no longer recommending these supplements as a treatment for osteoarthritis. In fact, many are lobbying for the companies that distribute these supplements to change their packaging to remove any claims that glucosamine and chondroitin can be used as a treatment for this condition.
Other Treatment Options
Fortunately, there are several other viable treatment options for those who are struggling with osteoarthritis, including:
- Pain medication: Medications with anti-inflammatory properties, like ibuprofen, naproxen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are often recommended for those with osteoarthritis. Acetaminophen may also be helpful for relieving joint pain.
- Water therapy: Specific exercises can be performed in a pool to help with osteoarthritis pain. Using the pool for exercise allows the joints to move more freely without any weight being applied to them.
- Elliptical machines: Like in a pool, working out on an elliptical machine allows for exercise with minimal pressure on the joints. Stationary exercise bikes are also useful for this type of physical activity.
- Stretching exercises: Stretching regularly can help reduce stiffness and pain in the joints for those with osteoarthritis. A physical therapist is often helpful in demonstrating which types of stretches will be the most helpful for an individual’s condition.
- Traction: Some individuals utilize traction devices to get relief from their symptoms of osteoarthritis. This treatment method should only be explored with the assistance of a doctor or physical therapist.
You should always consult with your doctor before taking on any new supplement regimen for any condition or ailment, including osteoarthritis.