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Should I Take Glucosamine and Chondroitin?

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Updated February 26, 2008

Question: Should I Take Glucosamine and Chondroitin?
Patients with joint cartilage problems, such as arthritis, have probably heard of glucosamine and chondroitin. Glucosamine and chondroitin are supplements that are sold over the counter in pharmacies, grocery stores, and health food stores. The benefit of glucosamine and chondroitin is often debated, and many patients wonder if they should bother taking these supplements.

Glucosamine and chondroitin are commonly referred to as joint supplements. These substances are molecules that are found in normal cartilage, and there is hope that ingesting them in supplement form may help with joint cartilage problems.

Answer: Quite a lot of research has investigated the effects of these joint supplements on relieving the symptoms of wear-and-tear arthritis of the joints (osteoarthritis). We know that glucosamine and chondroitin do not reverse the wear-and-tear seen in osteoarthritis, but some studies have shown that there are beneficial effects of relieving symptoms of this condition.

What Do Joint Supplements Do?

Joint supplements contain molecules that are some of the same components of normal cartilage. These joint supplements have never been shown to increase the formation of cartilage within joints. The most current theory to explain the positive effects of glucosamine and chondroitin is that they likely have an anti-inflammatory effect on the joints. By relieving joint inflammation, the symptoms of osteoarthritis are diminished.

Why Wouldn't I Take Joint Supplements?

There are studies that show that joint supplements have no better effect on relieving symptoms from osteoarthritis than a placebo. For example, a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found no effect on relieving the pain of hip arthritis with glucosamine.

Joint supplements are not cheap. Cost varies, but most joint supplements cost $30 to 60 for a month's supply. Caution should be used when buying discount brands, as some studies have found that some supplements -- especially discount brands -- do not contain the joint supplements they claim on their labels.

Should I Take Joint Supplements?

Joint supplements are very safe. The side effects of glucosamine and chondroitin are similar to placebo pills. Even if the benefit of taking the joint supplements is small, I think it is worthwhile. For every study that demonstrates no beneficial effect of joint supplements, you can find an equally well done study that demonstrates positive effects of this treatment.

I recommend that my patients who have wear-and-tear arthritis try joint supplements for one month. If they see benefits of taking these supplements, I think it is reasonable to continue this treatment. If no benefit is seen, other treatments for arthritis should be considered.

Sources:

Muller-Fasbender, H, et al.; Glucosamine sulfate compared to ibuprofen in osteoarthritis of the knee. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2:61-69. 1994.

Leeb, B, et al.; A Metaanalysis of Chondroitin Sulfate in the Treatment of OA. Journal of Rheumatology. 27:205-211. 2000.

Rozendaal RM, et al. "Effect of Glucosamine Sulfate on Hip Osteoarthritis" Ann Int Med. Vol 148 Iss 4. Feb 19, 2008. Pages 268-77.

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