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Should You Stop Taking Glucosamine for Your Joints?

sunset boatdock

There is an old joke I once heard that begins with a man watching Jesus actually walk across a body of water.

The man, who as it turns out was no fan of Jesus, reported back to anyone who would listen: “It’s obvious to me that Jesus can’t swim!”

This past February, The New England Journal of Medicine reported on the GAIT (Glucosamine/Chondroitin Arthritis Intervention Trial) study. The media reports, however, seemed a little like our intrepid man above reporting on Jesus. The story headlines read, “supplements did little to ease arthritis”. Another exclaimed, “they (Glucosamine/Chondroitin) are a waste of money”. The media actually distorted the encouraging results of this study to make it appear that the supplements were of little value. Here’s what actually happened.

The GAIT trial compared 4 study groups — those assigned Glucosamine by itself, Chondroitin by itself, the combination of the two, and the drug Celebrex. The study participants had mild to severe knee pain. The actual study results clearly show that participants with moderate to severe arthritis pain had a better (and statistically significant) improvement when given the Glucosamine/Chondroitin combination compared to placebo, and even better than the COX-2 drug, Celebrex. This Glucosamine/Chondroitin group showed a 24-26.4% improvement (the study standard identified a 20% improvement as being effective). The Celebrex was only 10% better than placebo in the moderate to severe arthritis group (and not statistically significant), yet the media mostly ignored the fact that Celebrex was included in this study.

The data that caused the negative media stories involved the study subjects with mild knee pain. The scientists noted that the differences between placebo and all the various agents were relatively small. In this group, Celebrex performed slightly better than the Glucosamine/Chondroitin group — but none were statistically significant. While in the moderate to severe group, the Celebrex benefit was still not statistically significant, but the Glucosamine/Chondroitin was very effective as stated above, By reporting only on the results in the mild pain group the media took this opportunity to attack the efficacy of Glucosamine/Chondroitin supplements without even mentioning that Celebrex didn’t perform either.

Neither Glucosamine/Chondroitin nor Celebrex fared as well as in other studies in the mild pain group, perhaps because the placebo group improved by 60% in this group (which is very high for a placebo group in any study), and may explain why the improvements with all the supplements and Celebrex were only slightly better.

In addition, there was also flaw in this study. The researchers actually used the wrong form of Glucosamine. They used Glucosamine hydrochloride, when in fact, it’s Glucosamine sulfate that you’ll find in most of your supplements. The “sulfur” in the sulfate form also has beneficial anti-arthritic properties. Even with the less effective form, the results proved statistically significant for the Glucosamine/Chondroitin combination.

Reporting on the positive results of the GAIT study would not have sold newspapers because there have been dozens of studies substantiating the anti-arthritic and pain relieving properties of Glucosamine and Chondroitin. These supplements are among the top 10 most popular dietary supplements sold in the U.S., and over 20 million Americans are affected by osteoarthritis. Negative headlines about these supplements would definitely get attention and sell papers. I have to say again before you make changes in your diet or supplement regimen based on study results reported in the media, please go back to the actual study and real results. And, also be sure to note who paid for, sponsored and/or promoted the study to be sure there is no conflict of interest.

If you have joint pain, one approach would be trying Glucosamine and Chondroitin. In my experience using these supplements over many years in my practice, about 70-80% of my clients have positive results. As always, supplements do not work in a vacuum. They work synergistically with a healthy anti-inflammatory diet and healthy life-style. As always when trying supplements for a particular purpose or symptom, I recommend a 3-month trial. You should experience results within 2 weeks to 3 months with Glucosamine/Chondroitin. If there’s no benefit in 3 months, it won’t work for you, stop these supplements and try a different approach. And, if you have limited benefit, there are other supplements and herbs that we can add to greatly improve effectiveness. There are many natural anti- inflammatory and anti-arthritic options. If you’d like help in creating a program to eliminate joint pain and keep you enjoying your activities, call for a personalized assessment.