Researchers reported that chondroitin both decreased hand pain and improved stiffness. But an osteoarthritis specialist who spoke to WebMD says she is unconvinced.
About 27 million Americans, including one in 10 people over the age of 60, suffer from osteoarthritis. The condition results from bony changes and a loss of cartilage -- the flexible tissue that serves as a cushion between the bones -- in joints.
Chondroitin sulfate, a naturally occurring component of cartilage, is widely used in the treatment of the joint condition.
It is regulated as a drug in Europe but is sold as a dietary supplement in the U.S., usually in combination with another cartilage derivative, glucosamine.
While several studies have found chondroitin sulfate with or without glucosamine to be beneficial for the relief of osteoarthritis pain, others have failed to show a benefit.
Most previous studies have included only patients with osteoarthritis of the knee or hip, says rheumatologist Cem Gabay, MD, of Switzerland's University Hospitals of Geneva.
"Osteoarthritis of the hand is very common and symptoms can range from mild to crippling," Gabay tells WebMD. "That is why we wanted to study chondroitin sulfate in this subset of patients."
The study included 162 patients with hand pain caused by osteoarthritis treated daily with either 800 milligrams of chondroitin sulfate (80 patients) or placebo treatments (82 patients) for six months.
Neither the patients nor the investigators knew which treatment was being given.
At the end of the treatment phase of the study, the chondroitin sulfate patients reported significantly less hand pain than the placebo-treated patients, and they had larger improvements in morning stiffness.
They showed somewhat more improvement in grip strength, although the difference could have been due to chance. They were no less likely than the placebo-treated patients to use acetaminophen to control hand pain.
Gabay characterizes the difference in the two groups as "modest." But he says the study shows a clear benefit for chondroitin sulfate over placebo for the treatment of hand pain caused by osteoarthritis.