By James A. Shapiro MD

Osteoarthritis (OA) seems to affect all of us to some degree, as we get older. It even bothers some of us when we are young. Because OA is so common and can be very painful and disabling, many treatments are touted. One of the treatments is taking glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate. They have about a 50-60% chance of helping. (Recent good studies have shown this to be about as good as placebo.) There are quite a number of makers of these products and they are sold just about everywhere. Some may come with other additional supplements.

Glucosamine and chondroitin are both substances found in cartilage. Glucosamine is thought to stimulate the formation and repair of articular cartilage. Chondroitin sulfate is thought to draw fluid into articular cartilage, helping to slow cartilage breakdown and improves its function. There is some evidence that taken together they may slow down cartilage loss.

Both of these substances are presently being extracted from animals, including crab, lobster, or shrimp shells, cow tracheas, or rooster combs.

The amount presently recommended is glucosamine 1500 mg per day and chondroitin 1,200 mg per day. Most people who are going to get some benefit from these substances will notice some relief in the first 6 to 8 weeks. If you don’t experience some relief within 8 weeks, you probably won’t get any.   Once the symptoms have decreased, the amount of glucosamine and chondroitin can gradually be decreased. These supplements can be taken with other medications. If relief is obtained, the other medicines can be stopped. The cost of these supplements will not be covered by insurers.

There are a few cautions with these supplements.

  1. Don’t stop your other medicines.
  2. Make sure your joint pain is from OA. See your doctor.
  3. If you are pregnant or thinking of getting pregnant, you can’t take these supplements.
  4. These supplements can’t be given to young children.
  5. If you have diabetes, check your blood sugars frequently.
  6. If you are taking a blood-thinner (coumadin), you will need to get you blood clotting time checked. (Please discuss with your medical doctor, before starting the glucosamine and chondroitin.)
  7. These supplements are not a substitute for other pain management techniques such as exercise and maintaining a healthy weight.
  8. In some people there may be an increase in your blood cholesterol levels, so this needs to be monitored.

**Please note that the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons does not recommend these medications due to the likely benefit being about that of placebo.