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Do Glucosamine Supplements Work?

Can joint health supplements with glucosamine or chondroitin help you rebuild cartilage and reduce joint pain?

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
Episode #101

Do Glucosamine Supplements Work?

Glucosamine and chondroitin are popular dietary supplements that are promoted as a natural treatment for joint pain and arthritis. I recently got an email from a reader asking whether they really work. If you had asked me that question ten years ago, I would probably have given you a different answer than the one I’m going to give you today.

But first, let me give you a little background on what these supplements are and how they are supposed to work.

What Causes Joint Pain?

Sooner or later, almost everyone is going to have to put up with a little joint pain. Often, it’s because the spongy tissue, or cartilage, that cushions your joints has gotten worn away—by sports injuries, overuse, or just a lifetime or wear-and-tear. Osteoarthritis is more common in older people, whose joints have had more time to wear out. But young people can have joint pain, too. In fact, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment, it’s getting more common among younger folks.

The most common treatments for joint pain are over-the-counter pain killers like ibuprofen or prescription drugs like Celebrex. Like most drugs, these anti-inflammatory drugs come with a variety of side effects and risks. Some of the risks are fairly serious—and osteoarthritis is usually a long-term condition requiring ongoing treatment. So, a lot of people want to know if there’s anything they can do to ease joint pain naturally.

How Do Glucosamine and Chondroitin Work?

Glucosamine and chondroitin are both natural substances produced by your body. Glucosamine is thought to stimulate cartilage production in the joints and chondroitin is a component of cartilage tissue. It’s thought to attract water to the tissue, which helps the cartilage stay elastic, and also to block the action of enzymes that break down cartilage tissue.

The idea is that taking extra glucosamine and chondroitin in supplement form helps your body replace damaged or worn away cartilage more quickly. And the early studies were very promising. In 2000, for example, an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association reviewed 37 different studies on glucosamine and chondroitin. Twenty of the studies had design flaws that the authors felt made the results unreliable. But of the 15 that met their criteria, most showed moderate to large benefits.  The authors expressed some doubts that the results would be quite as impressive in a large-scale, tightly-controlled experiment. Nevertheless, they concluded that the supplements were probably effective to some degree. 

Sales of these supplements sky-rocketed. After all, promoters could cite published scientific evidence that they worked. Doctors began recommending them to patients.

But, as so often happens, as more and more studies were conducted and published, the evidence for glucosamine seemed to get weaker and weaker.

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