Does Glucosamine Live Up to Its Reputation?

Glucosamine has a great reputation for easing joint pain and stiffness.

Claims, Benefits: Halts, reverses or cures arthritis.

Bottom Line: Taken with chondroitin sulfate, this is a popular "cure" for osteoarthritis. It's hard to recommend these supplements, unless the second phase of the new study confirms some benefit. Meanwhile, if you want to try them, it may help and seems safe.

The Arthritis Noncure?

Millions of Americans with osteoarthritis take glucosamine, often with chondroitin sulfate, making these two of the top-selling dietary supplements. These substances are involved in the production and maintenance of the cartilage that cushions joints, and many experts hope that supplemental doses may slow or prevent deterioration of cartilage and thus reduce pain and stiffness.

But do they really work? Research has yielded conflicting findings over the years, so scientists have been waiting eagerly for the conclusion of a large, well-designed government-sponsored study that has been in the works for several years.

The results finally appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine in February, and they undoubtedly disappointed most arthritis sufferers. They must have also disappointed the manufacturers of the supplements, and probably the maker of Celebrex as well.

The study included nearly 1,600 people with osteoarthritis of the knee, the joint that's most likely to cause pain and loss of mobility. Participants were randomly assigned to receive one of five treatments daily for 24 weeks: glucosamine alone (500 milligrams three times a day), chondroitin sulfate alone (400 milligrams three times a day), glucosamine and chondroitin combined (at those same doses), a placebo (dummy pill) or Celebrex (a prescription drug approved for arthritis pain).

Overall, neither glucosamine nor chondroitin, alone or in combination, worked significantly better than the placebo. Celebrex was modestly effective. One surprising finding was that the placebo provided significant relief of symptoms in 60 percent of the subjects--double the expected placebo effect. Celebrex helped in 70 percent of them, not that much more than the placebo. At least no serious side effects were reported from the supplements or the drug.

Still Unknown

Did the supplements help anyone? The one positive note was that among the 354 people with moderate to severe symptoms, 79 percent who took both supplements (but not either one alone) reported significant relief, versus 54 percent who took the placebo and 69 percent who took Celebrex. But because this group was small (just 70 people), the researchers said this part of the analysis was only "preliminary" and "exploratory" and that the findings need to be confirmed by additional studies.

Was this the right form of glucosamine? The study used standardized glucosamine hydrochloride. Some previous studies that had positive results used another form, glucosamine sulfate. Both forms are available here, but no one knows if one form is better. Moreover, even if you did know, you can't be certain about the purity, potency and quality of what you're getting in health-food stores and drugstores or on the Internet.

Is this the last word on these supplements? Hardly. The study is now in its second phase, after which the subjects' knees will be X-rayed to see if the supplements actually slow the loss of cartilage over the long term. Those results, expected in about a year, are crucial, since that's supposed to be the supplements' primary benefit (in contrast to immediate pain relief).

Bottom Line

Americans spend about $10 billion a year on unproven arthritis remedies. They've tried almost everything to relieve arthritis pain--from cow dung poultices and countless herbs to copper bracelets and raisins soaked in gin. There is no cure, but everything seems to work at least for some people for a while, in part because there's such a strong placebo effect, as this study showed. Moreover, arthritis pain waxes and wanes, and we tend to blame or credit whatever we happen to be trying at the time.

Pain relievers, over-the-counter or prescription, help many arthritis sufferers, though they don't affect the underlying loss of cartilage. Discuss the options with your doctor. Most recommend starting with over-the-counter acetaminophen (such as Tylenol). Aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen may offer greater relief, but can cause stomach bleeding and ulcers. We can't overemphasize the importance of losing weight if you are overweight, and exercising to maintain strength and flexibility. Both steps can help relieve pain and restore mobility.

What about glucosamine and chondroitin? It's hard to recommend them now, unless the second phase of the study confirms some benefit. Don't believe industry ads claiming that the new study has proven the benefits.

Still, if you have moderate to severe symptoms, you can talk to your doctor about the supplements, along with other arthritis strategies. And if you do decide to try glucosamine, it's probably better to choose glucosamine sulfate, based on previous research. Finally, if you already take these supplements and find that they help, continue with them, but consider stopping for a while to see if there's a difference.


Reprinted, courtesy of University of California Berkeley. For more articles and information, visit www.wellnessletter.com .

Discuss This Article