How a supplement often used on animals is helping humans, too.
April 10, 2000 (San Francisco) -- For more than 10 years, 72-year-old San
Franciscan Ellen Arbenz was dogged by pain every time she climbed a set of
stairs. Sometimes just walking across a room made her joints cry out. And
though she'd always loved gardening, she had gradually come to enjoy it less
and less. Kneeling to yank a weed, pushing a trowel into the dirt, or merely
reaching to clip a flower had become too painful.
Arbenz's troubles are all too common: an estimated 20 million Americans
suffer from osteoarthritis. Like many others with this ailment, Arbenz has long
taken the standard therapy: non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs.
The pills made her joints less achy, but they also upset her stomach.
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A year or so ago, she heard of a dietary supplement called glucosamine.
Indeed, if you know a lot of people with arthritis, as Arbenz does, it's hard
not to hear about this substance. Again and again, fellow sufferers told
her that glucosamine -- sometimes taken along with another supplement called
chondroitin -- helped them. A book on these pills, The Arthritis Cure,
by Jason Theodosakis, MD, was selling like hotcakes.
Six months ago, Arbenz tried glucosamine herself. "I've had very good
results," she says. "I no longer take the anti-inflammatories, and the
pain is still improving."
Arbenz's rebound would come as no surprise to veterinarians, many of whom
have long used glucosamine and chondroitin to treat creaky horses and dogs.
"We see it all the time," says Andrew Sams, DVM, a veterinary surgeon
at the Madera Pet Hospital in Corte Madera, Calif. "I've had many pet
owners start using these supplements for themselves after their dog began to
show improvements." But after years of such anecdotal successes with only
small-scale foreign studies to back them up, there's been little medical
evidence of their effectiveness.
That may be about to change. The National Institutes of Health (NIH)
recently allocated $6.6 million for the biggest study ever on these
supplements. This eagerly awaited nine-center trial, slated to begin this
summer, will assign more than 1,000 osteoarthritis patients to receive either
glucosamine alone, chondroitin alone, the two substances together, or a
placebo. Monthly evaluations will look at patients' levels of pain and how well
they're able to manage everyday chores. Researchers will also compare X-rays of
joints taken at the beginning and end of the study to look for structural
changes over the four-month period.
"While this study design won't answer how the supplements
work," says Daniel O. Clegg, MD, professor of medicine at the University of
Utah and the NIH study coordinator, "it will be able to say with some real
authority whether or not they work." This kind of clarity is needed. A
review in the March 15 Journal of the American Medical Association
criticized many of the past studies for possible bias and exaggeration. Even
so, author Timothy McAlindon, DM, concludes that the supplements appear