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Glucosamine and Chondroitin: Put to the Test for Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis, affecting 16 to 20 million American adults. Caused by injury or the wear and tear on joints that occurs with aging, osteoarthritis has no cure.

Thinning of the cartilage surrounding the bones leads to increased friction, degeneration, and pain. While conventional treatments like nonsteroidal painkillers help ease that pain, two natural substances, glucosamine and chondroitin, show promise of slowing or stopping cartilage destruction.

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More than 20 human clinical studies support the use of these supplements and now the National Institutes of Health is studying glucosamine and chondroitin to find out if they can stand up to claims.

Dr. Jason Theodosakis is quite sure they will, having popularized the benefits of this natural therapy in his bestseller, The Arthritis Cure (St. Martin's Press, 1997). Below are answers to some frequently asked questions he hears:

Q: When would I take glucosamine and chondroitin?

A: Most people take glucosamine and chondroitin because they have joint pain, have been diagnosed with osteoarthritis, or just feel sort of creaky. A lot of people complain as they get older that it takes them a little while to get up and out of a chair. That's usually a sign of osteoarthritis. Those are the best candidates for glucosamine and chondroitin.

Q: Can I take glucosamine and chondroitin to prevent arthritis?

A: No. I don't recommend glucosamine and chondroitin as a preventive agent if you had no joint pain or problems. However, if you've had an injury, if you've had surgery, if the doctor tells you that you have osteoarthritis-I think that's the time to take glucosamine and chondroitin.

Q: Are there side effects?

A: Most glucosamine and chondroitin users report no side effects, but about five percent have some stomach upset. So far glucosamine and chondroitin have not been found to interact with any other medications, so people can take their anti-inflammatory pills, or their heart medicine, and still take these supplements. It has not been studied in children, pregnant women, or women who are nursing.

Q: How will I know glucosamine and chondroitin are working?

A: You tend to be able to do more. You move easier, and your pain is less. And most people end up stopping their pain medication. So they may be on Advil or Tylenol for a long period of time, and they suddenly realize they don't need it anymore.

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Q: Does it treat the symptom or the cause of the disease?

A: The remarkable thing about glucosamine and chondroitin is that when taken together they don't just relieve the pain like Tylenol or Advil or anti-inflammatory pills, but they work to inhibit the disease process.

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We now have long-term, three-year studies looking at X-rays to show that people taking the supplements don't have the progression in their arthritis like people taking a placebo.

Because the supplements are the first treatments shown to improve the actual disease process, I suspect that pain relievers and anti-inflammatories will be soon considered malpractice for first-line osteoarthritis treatment.

Q: How much should you take?

A: People typically start out taking a total of 1,500 milligrams of glucosamine and 1,200 milligrams of chondroitin per day, divided into two doses, then cut back to once a day over time, after about five months. You need at least 800 milligrams of chondroitin to be effective, and it takes up to five months, so people really should try the supplements about five months to reach maximum benefit.

Q: Where can I buy it, and how much does it cost?

A: Glucosamine and chondroitin can be found in most pharmacies, drug stores, and health food stores. It costs about 50 to 75 cents a day in full dose. But most people usually cut back to a half or third of the dose after five months, which helps indicate that it does work long-term, and helps improve the disease process.

Q: Which brands are the most effective?

A: Brands vary widely in terms of their composition, and some have been found to contain less medicine than the label indicates.

Three top-quality glucosamine and chondroitin combination products I trust are: Sundown Osteo Bi-Flex Glucosamine Chondroitin, Thompson Gluco-Pro 900 Glucosamine Chondroitin, and Nutramax Cosamin DS. These products are tested for purity by qualified laboratories, but to make sure that they are true to what their label states, I double-check by sending products to independent labs for chemical analysis.

The information expressed on this page is the opinions and perspectives of the individual featured here and is not necessarily endorsed or recommended by Discovery Health Online.

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