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Study Raises New Questions About Glucosamine

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WebMD Health News

March 14, 2000 (Atlanta) -- It's a rainy day in Omaha, and Betty Rindone's knees and hips are bothering her. "It's 100% humidity," she tells WebMD. "I can always tell."

After she had been plagued by years of minor aches and pains, Betty's knee gave out four years ago. "I just went down," she remembers. "By the time we got home, my thigh was really hurting." X-rays showed an arthritic knee and hip.

On the advice of her pharmacist son, Rindone began taking glucosamine sulfate, a dietary supplement widely touted as helping to decrease pain and joint deterioration caused by osteoarthritis. She took it along with an anti-inflammatory medication, gave it three months to work, and got little more than an uncomfortable side effect (constipation). "I didn't see any difference," says Rindone, 71. "My leg still hurt and hurt."

A recent study suggests that a certain segment of arthritic people -- those who are older and heavier and have suffered from arthritis for a long time -- may get no relief at all from the supplement. Published in the Western Journal of Medicine, the study found glucosamine to be no more effective than a placebo in reducing arthritis pain, says study author Joseph P. Rindone, PharmD. Rindone is a researcher with the VA Medical Center in Prescott, Ariz., and is Betty Rindone's son.

The study looked at a group of 98 patients, all veterans, with an average age of 65, who were being treated for osteoarthritis of the knee. For two months, the volunteers received 500 mg of glucosamine three times daily or a sugar pill. At the end of the first and second months, the volunteers' pain intensity was measured while they were walking and resting. No significant differences in pain levels were noted in either the glucosamine or the placebo group, Joseph Rindone says.

"We went into the study thinking the stuff would help," he tells WebMD. "It didn't come out that way at all. We tried to figure out why. Our patients were definitely older than previous studies, heavier (with an average weight of 200 pounds), and seemed to have had arthritis forever, 40 or 50 years. Our patients also had severe arthritis. It's somewhat suggestive that people with long-standing arthritis don't respond to glucosamine."

Many people who, like Betty Rindone, were dissatisfied with glucosamine, have had better results with the lesser known glucosamine-chondroitin combination. The two supplements are said to have a heightened effect when taken together. Brian Cole, MD, director of cartilage restoration at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, tells WebMD, "They seem to increase the amount of normal cartilage without toxicity or side effects." Cartilage is missing or destroyed in the joints of people with osteoarthritis.

For many elderly people, cost is an important issue in choosing between the two supplement regimens. "The chondroitin combination is fairly pricey," says Rindone.

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