Hype or Hope For Arthritis

Suffering with the debilitating pain of osteoarthritis (OA) is no fun.  It is the most common form of arthritis that leads to the breakdown of cartilage, a rubbery material covering and cushioning the ends of bones reducing friction and acting as a “shock absorber.”

Glucosamine as a possible solution

Nearly 21 million Americans or 12.1 percent of the U.S. population age 25 and older have this crippling condition.  It’s no wonder anyone who has it will be tempted to try anything claiming to lessen pain, stiffness, and inflammation associated with it.  Many Americans have turned to the use of the supplement form of glucosamine, a naturally occurring substance produced in the human body found in fluid surrounding joints.  Its function is to build and maintain cartilage preventing it from wearing away.

The theory of using glucosamine as a supplement for treating OA has been that supplemental doses may slow or prevent the deterioration of cartilage that causes OA. By reducing cartilage decline, it is believed to help ease the pain and stiffness so many people experience.

Glucosamine is often used with chondroitin sulfate and are two of the top-selling dietary supplements used in the United States.  The dietary supplement of glucosamine is usually made from shrimp or crab shells while chondroitin usually comes from cow or pig cartilage.

Does glucosamine really work?

There are many conflicting pieces of evidence and advice regarding the use of glucosamine and its effectiveness. There will always be people who will swear by its use in helping them while others found little to no relief.  Each year millions of Americans spend billions of dollars on unproven arthritis remedies.  Does glucosamine really work or is it pure hype? 

The best way to sort out the facts is to look at past studies asking this same question.  One of the largest and well-designed studies conducted in 2006 was called the Glucosamine/chondroitin Arthritis Intervention Trial (GAIT).  Almost 1,600 participants with OA of the knee were randomly selected to receive one of five treatments daily for 24 weeks – glucosamine hydrochloride by itself, chondroitin sulfate by itself, glucosamine and chondroitin combined, celecoxib a drug approved for arthritis, or a placebo.

Findings showed neither glucosamine nor chondroitin, alone or in combination, reduced pain or other symptoms significantly.  What was surprising was that the participants assigned the placebo had 60% relief of symptoms which is double the usual placebo effect.  The medication Celecoxib helped 70% of the users of it in the study.

Another study conducted in 2009 using 222 people with OA of the hip again found the placebo to be just as effective as the glucosamine sulfate in reducing pain or stiffness and x-rays showed no difference between the two.

In 2010 once again findings from GAIT confirmed that glucosamine and chondroitin whether taken by themselves or together for two years, were no better than a placebo at reducing pain.

The latest study published in Arthritis & Rheumatology found that glucosamine sulfate used with chondroitin sulfate were not more effective than a placebo in reducing pain during six months in people with knee OA.

It should be noted that all of the above studies resulted in no serious side effects of the participants.  The only warning given however was a 2013 study linking glucosamine supplements of increasing intraocular pressure in people with glaucoma and anyone with an allergy to shellfish could have a reaction.

Final thoughts

Anyone with OA needs to consult with their doctor before taking any supplement.  It is important to get a correct diagnosis that the pain experienced is from OA and not from another form of arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis (an autoimmune disorder) or gout in which glucosamine would unlikely be a solution.

Depending on the cost of a supplement, this could be another factor to consider.  If a person is already using a glucosamine supplement, one way to find out if it is possibly helping is to quit taking it for a while and see if there is a difference. 

The pain of arthritis tends to come and go making it hard to determine if a supplement is really of benefit.  Oftentimes using an anti-inflammatory pain reliever will help many people with OA but they do not address the issue of the loss of cartilage.

In the end, it all depends on cost of the supplements, their effectiveness and most importantly, what a doctor recommends for relief from OA.