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Arthritis Supplements in Question

Glucosamine and Chondroitin No Better Than Placebo for Mild Pain
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Feb. 22, 2006 -- The popular dietary supplements glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are no better than placebo for treating knee pain in most people with osteoarthritis, according to findings from a large study funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis that is often associated with the knee, hip, spine, and fingers. It is also known as degenerative joint disease.

The trial was conducted at 16 sites around the country and is the most rigorous examination of the widely-used supplements ever done, researchers say. It appears in tomorrow's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Osteoarthritis patients with mild pain treated for six months with the glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, either alone or in combination, experienced no greater pain relief than patients randomly assigned to take a placebo.

Those with moderate to severe knee pain who took a combination of the two supplements did report significantly greater pain relief than patients with the same degree of pain who took a placebo.

But this subgroup of around 20% of the total study population was too small to prove the findings, researchers say.

Millions Take the Supplements

Twenty one million Americans suffer from chronic joint pain due to osteoarthritis, and that number is expected to double within the next two decades as the population ages. The condition is caused by the breakdown and eventual loss of cartilage, the rubbery substance that serves as a cushion between the bones of the joints.

According to a 2002 survey conducted by the CDC, 5.2 million people reported using glucosamine, either alone or in combination with chondroitin, and most used the supplements for arthritis pain. Both substances, which are found naturally in the body, help make and maintain cartilage.

"Since both [glucosamine and chondroitin] are important components of cartilage, it is tempting to believe that ingestion of the agents would somehow provide beneficial help to the cartilage," researcher and rheumatologist Daniel O. Clegg, MD, said in a news conference. "However, it must be stressed that there is very little understanding of any potential biologic action of either of these agents in the treatment of osteoarthritis."

Supplements vs. Placebo

The Glucosamine/chondroitin Arthritis Intervention (GAIT) trial was designed to determine if the supplements effectively treat the pain associated with osteoarthritis of the knee.

A total of 1,583 people over the age of 40 with confirmed osteoarthritis were randomly placed into five different groups. Each group took either glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, both the supplements, the Cox-2 anti-inflammatory pain reliever Celebrex, or a placebo.

The study endpoint was a 20% or greater reduction in pain, as determined by a standardized questionnaire, after six months of treatment.

Overall, there was no significant difference in pain reduction between the people using supplements either alone or combined or those taking placebo. There was a greater improved response in the people taking Celebrex.

In the 354 patients with moderate to severe pain, however, the supplement combination appeared to be more effective than either Celebrex or placebo. The researchers say a larger study of patients with moderate to severe pain is needed to better understand the findings.

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