Home Remedies for Osteoarthritis Pain Relief

Osteoarthritis afflicts nearly 21 million Americans, men and women alike. Depending on its severity, arthritis can be a minor annoyance or a disabling disease that takes over every aspect of your life.

Symptoms of osteoarthritis usually don't appear until you're in your 40s or 50s. Most people over the age of 60, in fact, would show some signs of arthritis on X-rays, although only a third will experience symptoms. Some health experts estimate that as many as 90 percent of us will get some form of osteoarthritis at some point in our lives.

In more severe cases, a doctor may prescribe medicine or even recommend surgery for this condition. However, for patients who have just recently noticed symptoms of osteoarthritis, or who have a mild case, there are some home remedies for osteoarthritis pain relief that may prove effective.

This page will provide an overview of the causes, symptoms, and conventional treatment methods for osteoarthritis before we move into a discussion of home remedies for osteoarthritis pain relief, namely glucosamine sulfate, on the following pages of this article.

What Causes Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis occurs as a result of the breakdown of the cartilage in the joints. In a normal joint, the ends of the bones are covered with cartilage: a durable, elastic tissue that protects the bones and allows the joint to move freely. Cartilage gets the oxygen and nutrients it needs by absorbing them, like a sponge, from the joint fluid (called synovial fluid). As the joint bends, waste products are squeezed out of the cartilage; as the joint relaxes, nutrients and oxygen are absorbed. (Controlled movement, therefore, benefits the joints.)

In osteoarthritis, the cartilage thins out and may even wear away, leaving areas where bones rub directly against each other. As a result, the edges of the bones may thicken and form bony swellings called spurs (medically known as osteophytes). Stiffness and dull pain in the joints, with little or no inflammation, are generally the result. These are the typical symptoms of osteoarthritis.

The weight-bearing joints (hips, knees, and spine) are most frequently involved in osteoarthritis. Other joints often affected are the finger joints closest to the tips of the fingers, which may develop bony knobs. The joint at the base of the thumb and the big-toe joint may also be affected. Osteoarthritis rarely affects the wrists, elbows, shoulders, ankles, or jaw. Although osteoarthritis may affect more than one joint at a time, the disease does not affect other systems or organs of the body.

Osteoarthritis is considered a chronic disease, but it may not necessarily get progressively worse, and many people with the condition are relatively free of symptoms. Few people are severely disabled by the disease.

Why Osteoarthritis Occurs

While a breakdown of the cartilage in the joints is essentially the source of the symptoms of osteoarthritis, it is not always clear why this breakdown occurs. Most often, the thinning of the cartilage is attributed to years of wear and tear and the inability of the body to repair the resulting damage.

Previous injury that causes inflammation in a joint can also make it more likely to be affected by osteoarthritis. Unusual stress on a joint, either through a repetitive activity -- such as typing or playing a sport -- or because of excess body weight, may bring about the changes associated with osteoarthritis, perhaps earlier than is typical.

Some individuals are born with a misalignment of their joints that leaves them prone to osteoarthritis. And in some cases, there appears to be a genetic component.

Diagnosing Arthritis

Diagnosing osteoarthritis can be difficult, partly because the disease's symptoms may be mistaken for those of other conditions, including injuries, muscle or spinal-disc problems, or even other forms of arthritis. X-rays and laboratory tests can help rule out other conditions. But perhaps the most valuable diagnostic tool available to doctors is the physical examination, including a medical history and a detailed discussion of the symptoms.

To help your doctor make a diagnosis, be prepared to tell him or her which part of your body hurts; what the pain feels like, when it began, and how long it lasts; what, if anything, seems to trigger the pain or make it worse; when and if you have stiffness or other symptoms; what activities you may have trouble doing; and what, if anything, helps to relieve your pain.

Conventional Relief

The best conventional treatment for osteo­arthritis generally involves prescribed exercises to keep the joints flexible, encourage nourishment of the cartilage, and strengthen the surrounding tissues; joint protection, often based on the suggestions of a physical or occupational therapist, to limit further damage; and, when necessary, both drug and nondrug measures to ease discomfort and decrease stiffness. Losing excess weight, eating a nutritionally balanced diet, and getting enough rest are also often part of the treatment prescription.

As noted previously, it is the movement of a joint that forces oxygen and nutrients into the cartilage and removes waste products, thus helping to keep the cartilage healthy. When the pain and stiffness of arthritis set in, however, moving the affected joint is the last thing on many patients' minds.

The tendency to limit the motion of an affected joint can actually aggravate the problem and may lead to even greater loss of mobility. While excessive or very strenuous activity may not be appropriate, gentle range-of-motion exercises can actually decrease stiffness and pain.

Range-of-motion exercises are used to put a joint through the full range of its natural motion without excessive stress. They are essential to any treatment plan for arthritis. Your doctor or a physical therapist can show you appropriate exercises or recommend an exercise class designed for people with arthritis.

Extremely important, too, is protecting arthritic joints from injury or excessive strain. This may boil down to simple techniques such as using your forearm, rather than your bent wrist and hand, to push open a door or placing heavy kitchen equipment on shelves at waist height.

Increasing knowledge of the needs of people with arthritis has also led to an abundance of products designed to make daily tasks easier on painful joints. For example, forks, spoons, knives, and other utensils with soft, built-up handles that make gripping easier are now available in many grocery and department stores. Even if your joints aren't currently painful enough to affect your grasping ability, such joint-friendly devices can limit strain and may help prevent progression of symptoms.

Additional measures to help ease the pain and stiffness of arthritis include heat and cold treatments. Hot showers or baths or heating pads may improve flexibility, especially before exercise or other physical activity. And cold packs can often help numb a particularly painful joint.

Medications for Osteoarthritis

If these measures don't give adequate pain relief, your doctor may recommend medication. Most often, it will be acetaminophen or a non­steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Some NSAIDs, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium, are available over the counter. Stronger NSAIDs, such as sulindac, indomethacin, tolmetin sodium, and fenoprofen calcium, are available only by prescription.

These medications can be quite effective in relieving joint pain. As with many other drugs, however, they can have some uncomfortable and even dangerous side effects, especially if you must take them on an ongoing basis.

Aspirin and other NSAIDs, for example, may irritate the stomach lining and cause severe internal bleeding in some people. Taken in large amounts over the long term, they can also cause kidney and liver damage. Some research even suggests that these drugs may actually inhibit cartilage repair and increase the progression of the disease.

The advent of COX-2 inhibitors, which are powerful inflammation-blocking drugs, seemed to herald a new era of treatment for people with arthritis. However, use of the drugs has been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular problems, including heart attacks and strokes, and most have been removed from the market.

Is Surgery for You?

If medications don't work to relieve your symptoms, or if your disease is severe, your doctor may recommend surgery to ease your pain. There are two main types of operations for arthritis.

The first is "clean-up" surgery to repair a damaged joint by removing debris, correcting a deformity, or fusing bones. In the second type of surgery, the arthritic joint is removed and replaced with an artificial one.

Thousands of people with arthritis have undergone surgery to get relief. However, in one of the first-ever studies to compare arthroscopic "clean-up" surgery to fake (placebo) surgery, this procedure was found to be useless. According to the study, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002, simply squirting fluid into the knee joint worked every bit as good as performing the usual "clean-up" procedure. Most doctors are now avoiding recommending this surgery to patients.

And it's important to remember that all surgeries are difficult.

Glucosamine sulfate is one natural substance that has been shown useful for osteoarthritis pain relief. Continue to the next page to learn more.

For more information on understanding and treating arthritis, see:

  • To see all of our home remedies and the conditions they treat, go to our main Home Remedies page.
  • Visit our main Herbal Remedies page for information on all of our herbal remedies and the conditions they treat.
  • Learn about more treatments for arthritis that are found around the house at Home Remedies for Arthritis.
  • Find out which herbs may be helpful in treating arthritis when you visit our Herbal Remedies for Arthritis page.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Using Glucosamine Sulfate to Treat Osteoarthritis

Glucosamine Sulfate stimulates connective tissue in a way that can help treat osteoarthritis. Glucosamine is a modified sugar molecule the body makes from glucose (blood sugar). Our bodies need glucosamine to function properly because glucosamine is a kind of building block for substances called mucopolysaccharides (MPSs), which are the major components of cartilage, bone, ligaments, nails, hair, and skin. Glucosamine stimulates connective tissue, encouraging it to repair itself. It is this property that makes glucosamine sulfate useful to treat osteoarthritis.

Think of glucosamine as a security guard whose mission it is to protect the tiny biochemical factories in your body called chondrocytes. Found largely in joints, chondrocytes produce collagen and other substances and assemble them into cartilage. Normally, glucosamine is on the job to see that orders are filled. But if you have arthritis, your chondrocytes cannot produce enough glucosamine, and degeneration results.

The chondrocytes begin to act as if they are under orders to destroy cartilage. And the "factory" just can't make enough new cartilage to replace what's lost. In severe joint damage, chondrocytes stop making glucosamine altogether.

There are several types of glucosamine available for purchase, and the differences among them occur because of what is chemically bonded to the base molucule. The two forms you're most likely to see in stores are glucosamine sulfate and glucosamine hydrochloride. Only glucosamine sulfate has shown any consistent activity and efficacy when used to treat osteoarthritis. Although glucosamine hydrochloride is cheaper, it is ineffective and should not be used.

There is considerable evidence that using glucosamine sulfate to treat osteoarthritis can prompt your body to flip a "switch" and convince the haywire chondrocytes to stop destroying cartilage -- and even begin to rebuild it.

How Glucosamine Works

Just how glucosamine sulfate convinces chondrocytes to stopping running amok is unclear.

What we do know from animal studies is that glucosamine sulfate works nothing like aspirin or other NSAIDs. Instead, it appears to function as a nutrient.

Most of the initial research on glucosamine sulfate was conducted in Europe, where pharmaceutical companies were quick to realize the nutrient's importance in treating arthritis. In fact, glucosamine sulfate has become the arthritis treatment of choice for many European physicians, who turn to conventional drugs only when glucosamine sulfate proves to be ineffective.

Throughout Portugal, for example, it's glucosamine sulfate you'll receive if your doctor hands you a diagnosis of arthritis. In 1982, more than 250 Portuguese doctors participated in a nationwide study to determine the supplement's effectiveness in treating arthritis.

The physicians gave 1,506 osteoarthritis patients a daily dose of 1,500 milligrams of glucosamine sulfate for six to eight weeks. In another group, 1,077 arthritis sufferers were treated with NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, or with corticosteroids.

At the end of the trial, 95 percent of patients in the glucosamine group showed marked improvement, compared to 70 percent of patients in the NSAIDs group. Consequently, the Portuguese doctors, as a group, rated glucosamine a better arthritis treatment than standard drugs.

Additional Glucosamine Sulfate Studies

In one of the best studies to date, 318 people in Spain who had osteoarthritis of the knee were randomly assigned to take glucosamine sulfate, acetaminophen, or placebo for six months. Those on the glucosamine sulfate regimen took 1,500 milligrams just once per day. Nevertheless, glucosamine sulfate was superior to acetaminophen and placebo at relieving the totality of symptoms and improving function.

In another experiment, scientists at Vigevano General Hospital in Pavia, Italy, studied 80 arthritis patients for 30 days. The subjects, all in their 60s, were suffering from osteoarthritis of the neck, lumbar (lower) spine, or multiple joints -- conditions that doctors find most difficult to treat.

Half the patients were given a daily dose of 1,500 milligrams of glucosamine sulfate; the other half got a sugar pill. At the end of the trial, 10 patients in the glucosamine sulfate group reported that their symptoms had disappeared. No one in the control group made such a claim.

Buoyed by the results of such experiments, more and more researchers have been testing glucosamine sulfate.

Among the more well-known studies:

  • Researchers gave 24 patients with osteo­arthritis of the knee either 500 milligrams of glucosamine sulfate three times a day or a placebo. In six to eight weeks, those who received the supplement enjoyed significant reductions in pain, joint tenderness, and swelling. They reported no side effects.
  • Eighty osteoarthritis patients suffering from pain, swelling, and restricted movement were given either glucosamine sulfate or a placebo. After three weeks, 73 percent of patients in the glucosamine group reported marked improvement of symptoms. Scientists biopsied (surgically removed and examined a small amount of tissue) cartilage taken from the glucosamine patients, moreover, and found that the tissue appeared far healthier than samples taken from the placebo group.
  • Researchers at several clinics in Germany and Italy set out to determine the effectiveness of glucosamine sulfate. The test group was composed of 141 patients with osteoarthritis of the knee. One group received a placebo. The other got 1,500 milligrams a day of glucosamine sulfate. After four weeks, 55 percent of glucosamine-taking patients noted improvements, compared to 38 percent in the placebo group.

Some osteoarthritis patients may benefit from taking glucosamine supplements in combination with other pain relief and treatments for osteoarthritis. Learn more on the next page.

For more information on understanding and treating arthritis, see:

  • To see all of our home remedies and the conditions they treat, go to our main Home Remedies page.
  • Visit our main Herbal Remedies page for information on all of our herbal remedies and the conditions they treat.
  • Learn about more treatments for arthritis that are found around the house at Home Remedies for Arthritis.
  • Find out which herbs may be helpful in treating arthritis when you visit our Herbal Remedies for Arthritis page.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Using Glucosamine Sulfate With Other Medications

Although glucosamine sulfate can be an effective natural treatment for osteoarthritis pain relief, it is not the only effective means of treating this condition. In fact, using glucosamine sulfate with other medications may be a good way of repairing joints, reducing pain and treating osteoarthritis.

Medical Studies

One of the first glucosamine sulfate studies compared the nutrient's effectiveness with that of conventional painkillers. In 1980, researchers at the First Medical Division in Venice, Italy, studied 30 elderly patients with advanced osteoarthritis. For three weeks, half the patients were given injections and pills of glucosamine sulfate; the other half received injections and pills of a standard painkiller.

At the end of the trial, both groups reported significant decrease in joint pain and improvement in joint function. But after all treatments were stopped, the glucosamine subjects continued to note improvements. The control subjects did not. Four patients in the glucosamine-treated group, in fact, became symptom free, but none in the control group did.

Thus, the researchers concluded, even in cases of severe degenerative joint disease, glucosamine sulfate reduces pain as well as painkilling pharmaceutical drugs.

Two years later, researchers at St. John's Hospital in Oporto, Portugal, compared glucosamine sulfate to ibuprofen. For eight weeks, 40 patients with osteoarthritis of the knees took daily doses of either 1,500 milligrams of glucosamine or 1,200 milligrams of ibuprofen.

In the first two weeks, ibuprofen seemed to relieve pain faster and better than glucosamine sulfate. But after two more weeks, no more improvements were reported by the ibuprofen camp. At the end of eight weeks, patients in the glucosamine group were reporting far less pain than those in the ibuprofen group and showed more significant improvements in joint function.

Another study comparing the two drugs followed 200 patients with osteoarthritis of the knees for four weeks. As in the previous study, one group got 1,500 milligrams of glucosamine a day; the other received daily doses of 1,200 milligrams of ibuprofen.

After one week, ibuprofen takers were feeling better than glucosamine patients. But by the second week, and notably by the fourth week, glucosamine patients said they felt just as good as ibuprofen patients. More important, researchers noted, 35 percent of people taking ibuprofen reported experiencing side effects, including nausea, itching, and fatigue. Only six percent of glucosamine patients reported mild stomach upset. Seven subjects had to stop taking ibuprofen because of toxicity; only one person in the glucosamine group had to pull out of the study.

The researchers concluded that glucosamine sulfate was, in some ways, more effective than conventional pain relievers in treating osteoarthritis patients. But, they noted, it could take two to three weeks of glucosamine therapy before a patient noticed results.

What Type of Glucosamine to Take

Glucosamine is found to some degree in most of the foods we eat, especially fish and meat. But no food is particularly rich in the nutrient, and most glucosamine appears to be destroyed by cooking.

That means you need to take glucosamine supplements to achieve medical benefits. Glucosamine is available in three varieties: the previously discussed glucosamine sulfate and glucosamine hydrochloride, and N-acetylglucosamine (NAG).

Some holistic practitioners insist that all three varieties of glucosamine are equally effective in relieving arthritis pain. This belief was largely found to be false with the publication of the Glucosamine/Chondroitin Arthritis Intervention Trial in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2006.

This study of 1,583 people with osteoarthritis of the knee found that glucosamine hydrochloride was practically useless. When glucosamine hydrochloride was combined with chondroitin sulfate, there was some benefit for more serious osteoarthritis pain, but glucosamine hydrochloride by itself should not be used. Further testing of the other varieties as well as comparisons of glucosamine sulfate and NAG are needed in order to assess the benefits of NAG.

Likewise, the usefulness of glucosamine sulfate preparations that also contain chondroitins is yet unclear. (Chondroitin is also produced by the body and helps cartilage retain fluid, keeping it spongy.) Nearly all the research has used glucosamine sulfate supplements alone, not in combination with chondroitins. A growing body of research suggests chondroitin sulfate is also effective, but it is still not as well-supported as glucosamine sulfate.

For individuals who need to restrict their sodium intake, glucosamine sulfate is available in a potassium-bound form; look for glucosamine sulfate potassium chloride.

A final important note is that even if you take glucosamine sulfate, it would be extremely wise to also take lifestyle steps to protect your joints. That means eating a nutritious diet, getting regular exercise and rest, keeping excess weight off, and, if possible, refraining from repetitive motions that put excessive stress on your joints.

Can Glucosamine Reverse Symptoms?

A review of two trials that have lasted three years found that overall, glucosamine sulfate does delay the worsening of osteoarthritis of the knee. These studies used X-rays to measure whether knees were deteriorating. Those participants who took 1,500 milligrams of glucosamine sulfate once a day had one-third to one-half the risk of worsening compared to those taking placebos.

In one completed study, samples obtained by scanning electron microscopy showed that cartilage taken from subjects who had used glucosamine sulfate appeared healthy and young.

No other treatment has been shown to prevent osteoarthritis from progressing. This puts glucosamine sulfate into a category by itself. Given its terrific safety record and the fact it's relatively inexpensive, people with osteoarthritis should definitely consider glucosamine sulfate when seeking treatment.

If you suffer from arthritis, ask a holistically oriented physician whether glucosamine might help you. It's possible that you and your doctor can come up with a therapy to reduce your symptoms, and perhaps even reverse them, without the risk of dangerous side effects.

Osteoarthritis can be a painful or even debilitating condition, but if you suffer from the symptoms of osteoarthritis, know that you are not alone -- and natural home remedies like glucosamine sulfate may be able to help.

For more information on understanding and treating arthritis, see:

  • To see all of our home remedies and the conditions they treat, go to our main Home Remedies page.
  • Visit our main Herbal Remedies page for information on all of our herbal remedies and the conditions they treat.
  • Learn about more treatments for arthritis that are found around the house at Home Remedies for Arthritis.
  • Find out which herbs may be helpful in treating arthritis when you visit our Herbal Remedies for Arthritis page.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:Eric Yarnell, N.D., graduated from Bastyr University where he is now an assistant professor of botanical medicine. He is co-founder of the Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine in Vancouver, BC. He serves as president and is a founding member of the Botanical Medicine Academy. Dr. Yarnell is chief financial officer of Healing Mountain Publishing, a provider of natural medicine textbooks, and vice president of Huron Botanicals. He previously served as chair of the department of botanical medicine at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine and helped edit the Journal of Naturopathic Medicine. His published works include The A-Z Guide to Drug-Herb-Vitamin Interactions, Clinical Botanical Medicine, Naturopathic Gastroenterology, Naturopathic Urology and Men's Health, and The Natural Pharmacy. In his private practice he focuses on men's health, urology, and nephrology.ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS:Jeffrey Laign is a writer and editor with a special involvement in herbs and natural healing. An author of many magazine articles and books, including The Complete Book of Herbs, he has also been managing editor for Health Communications, Inc. Silena Heron, N.D., has been a naturopathic physician with a family health-care practice. A nationally recognized specialist in botanical medicine, she has taught throughout the West and Canada. She was founding chair of botanical medicine at Bastyr University and on the faculty for six years. Dr. Heron was the founding vice president of the Botanical Medicine Academy, an accrediting organization for the clinical use of herbal medicines.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.