Glucosamine For Joints Research Paper

Abstract

This study aimed to investigate the effectiveness and safety of glucosamine, chondroitin, the two in combination, or celecoxib in the treatment of knee osteoarthritis (OA). PubMed, Embase and Cochrane Library were searched through from inception to February 2015. A total of 54 studies covering 16427 patients were included. Glucosamine plus chondroitin, glucosamine alone, and celecoxib were all more effective than placebo in pain relief and function improvement. Specifically, celecoxib is most likely to be the best treatment option, followed by the combination group. All treatment options showed clinically significant improvement from baseline pain, but only glucosamine plus chondroitin showed clinically significant improvement from baseline function. In terms of the structure-modifying effect, both glucosamine alone and chondroitin alone achieved a statistically significant reduction in joint space narrowing. Although no significant difference was observed among the five options with respect to the three major adverse effects (withdrawal due to adverse events, serious adverse events and the number of patients with adverse events), the additional classical meta-analysis showed that celecoxib exhibited a higher rate of gastrointestinal adverse effect comparing with the placebo group. The present study provided evidence for the symptomatic efficacy of glucosamine plus chondroitin in the treatment of knee OA.

In recent years, there has been a fierce controversy over the efficacy of glucosamine, chondroitin, or the two in combination in the treatment of knee osteoarthritis (OA)1. The recommendations given by the American College of Rheumatology conditionally do not advocate the use of glucosamine and chondroitin in the treatment of knee OA2. The clinical practice guideline of American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons also provides strong evidence that the use of glucosamine and chondroitin cannot be recommended3. Similarly, the 2014 Osteoarthritis Research Society International (OARSI) guidelines conditionally do not recommend the use of them3. However, despite these available guidelines, glucosamine and chondroitin, sold as over-the-counter products in many cases, are among the most popular dietary supplements in America5,6. Thus, if glucosamine and chondroitin are indeed useless, a great deal of money is being wasted. Meanwhile, in another respect, American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had approved celecoxib as the first specific inhibitor of cyclo-osygenase-2 (COX-2) in December of 1998. Therefore, celecoxib became the most commonly prescribed inhibitor against COX-2. Out of concerns on adverse effects (AEs), other kinds of specific inhibitor of COX-2, such as etoricoxib, refecoxib, etodolac, valdecoxib and lumiracoxib have not yet passed the certification of FDA. Celecoxib is thereby the only option of selective non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) currently available in America and is recommended or conditionally recommended by all the three guidelines mentioned above3,4,5,7,8,9.

A recent randomized controlled trial (RCT) conducted by Hochberg et al.10 suggested that glucosamine plus chondroitin showed comparable efficacy over celecoxib in patients with painful knee OA, with a good safety profile. The effect of celecoxib on the treatment of OA in comparison with placebo had already been proved by our previous network meta-analysis11, but the efficacy of glucosamine and chondroitin, especially the two in combination, in comparison with placebo, still remains uncertain. A network meta-analysis published in 2010 concluded that glucosamine, chondroitin, and the two in combination did not relieve joint pain or exerted an impact on narrowing of joint space when compared with placebo, and therefore health authorities and health insurers should not cover the costs of these preparations12. However, the evidence was limited because only ten trials were included in their study and only one direct comparison (the combination group versus placebo) was available at that time. In addition, celecoxib, another widespread used oral agent in the treatment of OA, was not included in their Bayesian Network Model12. As a matter of fact, there is still a fierce controversy on whether glucosamine and chondroitin are effective for OA patients.

The method of Bayesian network meta-analysis integrates all direct and indirect evidences with respect to the relative medical effects; in this regard, it offers a coherent and unified approach to analyze all RCTs11,13,14,15,16,17,18. For the present study, the combination of direct and indirect evidences is an effective way to enhance estimate accuracy, as it can narrow the width of confidence interval compared to direct estimate alone19. On the basis of existing evidences, this study conducted a network meta-analysis of RCTs to examine the safety and efficacy of glucosamine, chondroitin, the combination of the two, or celecoxib in the control of knee OA.

Methods

Literature search

Electronic database including Cochrane Library, PubMed and Embase were searched through based on logic combinations of keywords and in-text words that are associated with OA to extract concerned RCTs and interventions conducted till February 2015 (see Appendix 1). Meanwhile, the following websites were also search through in the manner of periodic scrutiny in order to track unpublished and ongoing studies: the World Health Organization International Clinical Trials Registry (ICTRP) (http://apps.who.int/trialsearch/Default.aspx) and ClinicalTrials.gov (http://www.clinicaltrials.gov/). In addition, reviews and references listed in the retrieved articles were examined manually.

Study selection

This network meta-analysis is subject to the following inclusion criteria: (1) RCTs; (2) studies about knee OA patients; (3) studies containing at least two of the following treatments: 200 mg/day oral celecoxib, glucosamine, chondroitin, combination of glucosamine and chondroitin, and placebo; (4) studies reporting the pain, function, structure-modifying effect or the side effect outcomes of patients; (5) English literature; (6) availability of data. Secondary studies, such as some combined data analyses of RCTs, were ignored.

Quality assessment

The Cochrane’s risk of bias table was used to determine the methodological quality of each trial20. A total of seven potential risks of bias were evaluated: random sequence generation, allocation concealment, blinding of participants, blinding of outcome assessment, incomplete outcome data, selective reporting and other bias. Studies involving three or more high risks of bias were considered as poor methodological quality.

Outcome measure

This network meta-analysis aimed to reach the following primary outcome: the effectiveness of pain relief and function improvement from the baseline to the end of treatment by using 200 mg/day oral celecoxib, or glucosamine, or chondroitin, or combination of glucosamine and chondroitin, or placebo for knee OA. If multiple pain scales were reported by any study, the highest one on the hierarchy of pain scale was taken referencing to the suggestion of Jüni et al.21. The function subscale of Western Ontario and McMaster Universities Arthritis Index (WOMAC) was adopted to assess function improvement. If the WOMAC function was not reported, either Lequesne Index, WOMAC total or other relevant measurement scales would be applied instead. Since different scales were used for the pain and function assessment of included studies, the standard mean difference (SMD) was calculated to determine the differences between various treatment arms for pain relief and function improvement. If the value of SMD is negative, it suggests a better treatment effect in terms of function improvement and pain relief. We back transformed effect sizes (SMD) for pain to differences on a 10 cm visual analogue scale (VAS) based on a median pooled SD of 2.5 cm reported in large scale trials in osteoarthritis that used a similar visual analogue scale for pain. We also back transformed SMD for function to a standardized WOMAC function score ranging from 0 to 10 on the basis of a median pooled SD of 2.1 units22. The absolute changes from the baseline of pain and function were also evaluated in the classic meta-analysis. A change of 2 points on the scale of 0 to 10 was considered as clinically significant improvement23,24. The mean difference (MD) was used to evaluate the joint width narrowing of different treatments. A positive value of MD indicates a smaller joint width narrowing and a better treatment effect.

Safety and tolerability of all included studies were investigated based on the number of patients who withdrew from treatment because of adverse events (AEs) and who experienced serious AEs (SAEs), as well as the number of patients who experienced AEs by network meta-analysis. This study did not define any uniform standard for SAEs, and the definitions given in the original studies were respected. Meanwhile, 6 types of AEs were compared according to pairwise meta-analysis: gastrointestinal (GI) AEs, cardiovascular (CV) AEs, central nervous system (CNS) AEs, musculoskeletal (MU) AEs, infections, and skin AEs. The classification standard of the AEs was described in a former study11.

Statistical analysis

A network meta-analysis Bayesian random effect model was established to examine the overall effect size for different treatment options of knee OA. Network meta-analysis integrates both direct and indirect evidences in all primary trials, which is commonly seen as its main advantage11,25. The statistical method of this study had been elaborated in detail in our earlier researches11,13,14. In the Bayesian method, the prior probability distribution needs to take into account relevant prior information. Vague prior (mean 0, variance 10000) distributions were used throughout this study to allow data to drive inferences. The Markov Chain Monte Carlo method in the WinBUGS software (version 1.4.3, MRC Biostatistics Unit, Cambridge, UK) was applied to estimate posterior densities for unknown variables, as described in some earlier studies18,26,27. Then, the random effect model instead of the fixed effect model was applied as the most conservative and appropriate analysis to deal with differences among trials. For random effects, homogeneous variance was assumed in this study. Three Markov chains with different initial values (selected arbitrarily for convergence) ran simultaneously, and 50,000 simulations were generated for each set of initial values. To avoid the burn-in period, the first 10,000 simulations were rejected. The WinBUGS codes for random effect models of multi-arm trials can be found at http://www.mtm.uoi.gr/ and http://www.bristol.ac.uk/social-community-medicine/projects/mpes/ (see Appendix 2, the WinBUGS codes for network meta-analysis). The overall effect sizes (ORs or SMDs or MD) were obtained based on the median of the posterior distribution. The lower and upper limit of the traditional 95% credible interval (95%CI) corresponds to the 2.5th and 97.5th percentiles of the posterior distribution respectively. Significant difference was revealed by the 95%CI, which did not consider 1 for OR, or 0 for SMD and MD. Differences between direct and indirect effect estimates with respect to the same comparison were regarded as inconsistency, which was assessed based on the ratio of two odds rations (RoR) from direct and indirect evidences in one loop. If the RoR value approaches to 1, it indicates that the two estimates are consistent with each other. Loops with the lower 95%CI limit of RoR that does not approach to 1 suggest that there exists statistically significant inconsistency28. The fit of the model to data was evaluated by calculating the posterior mean residual deviance. If the mean of the residual deviance is similar to the number of data points of the model, this model fits the data adequately29. Network meta-analysis is also possible to generate rankings for all concerned treatments on the basis of the level of effectiveness according to posterior probabilities (first best, second best, third best, etc.). The values of probability were reported as the surface under the cumulative ranking (SUCRA). The best treatment has the SUCRA equal to 100%, while the worst treatment has the SUCRA equal to 0%28,30. Sensitivity analysis was conducted by excluding studies with poor methodological quality, or studies without commercial support, or studies with patients who were not evaluated with moderate or severe pain (VAS ≥ 3 cm for 0–10 cm scale) at baseline for pain and function. This study also conducted classic pairwise meta-analysis, in which heterogeneity was tested by Q statistics (P ≤ 0.05 was regarded as heterogeneous) and I2 statistics. I2 statistics mean to measure the percentage of the total variation across various studies (I2 ≥ 50% was regarded as heterogeneous). Publication bias was assessed by Begg’s test. P ≤ 0.05 indicates the existence of publication bias31.

All statistical analyses were established in the WinBUGS software (version 1.4.3, MRC Biostatistics Unit, Cambridge, UK), R version 3.0.2 (The R Foundation for Statistical Computing) and STATA software (version 11.0, StataCorp, College Station, TX).

Results

Study selection and characteristics

54 studies (Appendix 3) were qualified and included in the present systematic review and network meta-analysis. Figure 1 shows the details of the selection process. It is noteworthy that one study reported two independent trials, and two studies reported different outcomes from one trial. Figure 2 presents the network structure of the comparisons conducted in the present study. The methodological quality for all included trials was evaluated (Appendix 4). A total of 13 studies were considered as poor methodological quality.

Figure 1

Summary of studies identification and selection.

Figure 2

Structure of network formed by interventions and their direct comparisons.

Effects of pain relief

A total of 34 studies reported the change pain score at the last follow-up time point from baseline. Table 1 shows the SMD and the related 95%CI of network meta-analysis in terms of the changed pain score at the last follow-up period. Celecoxib (back transformed difference was −0.68 cm, 95%CI was −0.88 cm to −0.50 cm), glucosamine (−0.50 cm, −0.83 cm to −0.18 cm), chondroitin (−0.45 cm, −0.85 cm to −0.08 cm), and the combination of glucosamine and chondroitin (−0.68 cm, −1.18 cm to −0.15 cm) all showed a significantly better effect on pain relief compared with the placebo group. There was no significant difference in terms of pain relief between any two compared groups. All treatment options met the pre-specified criteria for clinically significant improvement of pain (Appendix 5). Evidence of inconsistency might exist in the comparisons among the loop of celecoxib, glucosamine, chondroitin; and the loop of celecoxib, glucosamine, and the combination of glucosamine and chondroitin. The assessment results of the goodness of fit indicate a general fit with the posterior mean residual deviance equal to 81.76 (71 data points). The probability distribution for each treatment option is presented in Appendix 6. Celecoxib possessed the largest probability to be the best treatment option (81%), followed by the combination of glucosamine and chondroitin (74%), while placebo ranked the last (1%). After excluding studies with poor methodological quality or studies without commercial support, the results did not change significantly. After excluding studies with patients who were not evaluated with moderate or severe pain (VAS ≥ 3 cm on the 0–10 cm scale) at baseline, the results appeared to be similar to the placebo group. Evidence of significant heterogeneity was found in some comparisons, but no publication bias was observed among included studies. (Appendix 7).

Table 1

Network meta-analyses comparison between results of pain difference (white) and function difference (grey) at last follow-up time point from the baseline.

Effects of function improvement

A total of 30 studies reported the change function score at the last follow-up time point from baseline. Table 1 shows the overall SMD and the related 95%CI of network meta-analysis with respect to function improvement. Celecoxib (back transformed difference was −0.59 units, 95%CI was −0.74 units to −0.46 units), glucosamine (−0.40 units, −0.61 units to −0.19 units), and the combination of glucosamine and chondroitin (−0.48 units, −0.80 units to −0.17 units) all showed a significantly better effect on function improvement compared with the placebo group. After back transforming the effect size and the difference between celecoxib and placebo, celecoxib also showed a better effect on function improvement compared with the chondroitin group (back transformed difference was −0.38 units, 95%CI was −0.65 units to −0.06 units). There was no significant difference in terms of function improvement between any other two compared groups. Glucosamine plus chondroitin was the only treatment option meeting the pre-specified criteria for clinically significant improvement of function (Appendix 5). There was no sign of inconsistency between direct and indirect evidences. The assessment of the goodness of fit suggested an adequate fit with the posterior mean residual deviance equal to 64.30 (63 data points). The probability distribution for each treatment is shown in Appendix 6. Celecoxib is most probably to be the best treatment (92%), followed by the combination of glucosamine and chondroitin (72%), while placebo ranked the last (1%). After excluding studies with poor methodological quality or studies without commercial support, the results did not change significantly. Evidence of significant heterogeneity was only found in the comparison between celecoxib and glucosamine, and no publication bias was observed among included studies. (Appendix 7).

Joint space width narrowing

Only seven studies reported the joint space width narrowing after the execution of different treatments. Table 2 shows the outcomes of network meta-analyses for joint space width narrowing. The joint space width narrowing of glucosamine (MD = 0.18 mm, 95%CI: 0.03 mm to 0.34 mm) and chondroitin (MD = 0.15 mm, 95%CI: 0.02 mm to 0.30 mm) was significantly smaller than that of placebo. There was no significant difference in terms of joint space width narrowing between any other two compared groups. Moderate inconsistency was observed. The assessment of the goodness of fit suggested an adequate fit with the posterior mean residual deviance equal to 18.62 (19 data points). Evidence of significant heterogeneity was found in some comparisons, but no publication bias was observed among included studies. (Appendix 6).

Table 2

Network meta-analyses comparison between results of JSW.

Tolerability and adverse effects

A total of 38 studies reported the withdrawal of patients due to AE; 21 reported SAEs, and 25 reported the number of patients with AE. The results of AEs (including the number of withdrawal due to AE, the number of patients with AE and SAE) and tolerability analysis are presented in Table 3. There was no significant difference in the comparisons between any two treatment options. Meanwhile, no evidence of inconsistency was observed between direct and indirect evidences. The assessment of the goodness of fit suggested an adequate fit with the posterior mean residual deviance equal to 74.70 (79 data points) for withdrawal due to AE, 43.26 (45 data points) for SAEs, and 53.28 (54 data points) for the number of patients with AE.

Table 3

Network meta-analyses comparison between results of adverse events.

Six specific kinds of AE were reported by pairwise meta-analysis. The results are shown in Table 4. Celecoxib was the only treatment option exhibiting a higher incidence of GI AE compared with placebo (OR = 1.17, 95%CI: 1.02 to 1.34). After excluding the studies with poor methodological quality, the results did not change significantly. Significant heterogeneity existed in the comparison between chondroitin and placebo for MU AE (p = 0.12, I2 = 59%) and skin AE (p = 0.07, I2 = 62%). No publication bias was observed among included studies. (Appendix 6).

Table 4

Odds ratio (95%CI) of specific adverse effects between different treatment groups.

Discussion

This network meta-analysis included 54 studies covering 16,427 knee OA patients. The results indicated significant effects of glucosamine plus chondroitin in pain relief and function improvement compared to the placebo group. In addition, this combination group was the only treatment option exhibiting clinically significant improvement from baseline pain and function. The structure-modifying effect of glucosamine, chondroitin, or the two in combination, remains uncertain due to the weakness of evidence. Furthermore, no significant difference was observed among the five treatment options with respect to adverse effects. However, the additional classical meta-analysis showed that celecoxib exhibited a higher rate of GI adverse effect comparing with placebo.

Glucosamine is a major constituent of extracellular matrix macromolecules such as glycosaminoglycans. The relevant mechanisms of glucosamine include the anti-inflammatory effect, pro-anabolic effect, promotion of osteoblast proliferation, and inhibition of catabolic intermediates32,33,34. Chan and colleagues reported that glucosamine plus chondroitin showed complementary anti-catabolic and anti-inflammatory effects when compared with the use of glucosamine or chondroitin alone35,36,37. This is consistent with our finding, i.e., glucosamine plus chondroitin was the only treatment exhibiting clinically significant improvement from baseline pain and function. Chondroitin, a kind of glycoaminoglycan, is a component of the aggrecan structure which makes up the articular cartilage. The anti-inflammatory, anabolic, anti-catabolic, anti-apoptotic and anti-oxidant effects of chondroitin have been widely reviewed33,34. However, compared with placebo, the present study neither proved a function improvement effect, nor a clinically significant improvement of chondroitin from baseline function.

Celecoxib has been confirmed by our previous study as an effective treatment in pain relief and function improvement for OA11. However, this network meta-analysis further indicated that celecoxib did not show any clinically significant improvement from baseline function. In addition, the existing evidence cannot prove the structure-modifying effect of celecoxib due to the limited number of included trials. Although celecoxib was not significantly different from glucosamine plus chondroitin, glucosamine, chondroitin, or placebo with respect to the three major adverse effects, the additional classical meta-analysis showed that celecoxib exhibited a higher rate of GI adverse effect comparing with placebo. According to the results of our previous study, 200 mg QD exhibited a significantly higher incidence of GI adverse effect in comparison with placebo11. Thus, 100 mg BID oral celecoxib might be considered as the preferred dosage for the treatment of knee OA.

To our best knowledge, this is the first network meta-analysis that compares glucosamine, chondroitin, and the two in combination with celecoxib or placebo for the treatment of knee OA. Both direct and indirect comparisons were taken into account while fully preserving randomization. In addition, this study not only examined the treatment effects of glucosamine, chondroitin and the two in combination, but also compared their effects with the effects of celecoxib, the most widely-used selective NSAID at present. This network meta-analysis was designed specifically in accordance with two latest high-quality RCTs10,38. Nevertheless, limitations of the present study should also be acknowledged. Firstly, because of the limited number of included studies, the some AEs were not combined for network meta-analysis, but combined for the classical meta-analysis. Secondly, a moderate level of inconsistency was observed for pain and joint space width narrowing. This may be caused by some unknown confounding factors which may affect the results of indirect comparisons. The limited number of studies that investigated the combination of glucosamine and chondroitin may be one of the reasons. Thirdly, variations in treatment duration, dosage (especially for glucosamine and chondroitin), brand, final follow-up time point, and sample size may contribute to the significant heterogeneity of evidence. Particularly, the possible duration-response pattern may exert an impact on the performance of these drugs. Fourthly, more high-quality RCTs with longer follow-up time interval are needed to confirm these drugs’ safety, especially the cardiac-vascular and renal safeties.

The network meta-analysis performed by Wandel et al. in 2010 suggested that glucosamine, chondroitin, and the two in combination did not mitigate joint pain or imposed an impact on narrowing of joint space12. The conclusion of this study played a crucial role in shifting the attitudes of several guidelines with respect to the effect of glucosamine and chondroitin in the treatment of OA. However, some worthwhile issues should be mentioned. The overall difference in pain intensity based on a summary of all time points was −0.4 cm on a 10 cm visual analogue scale for glucosamine, −0.3 cm for chondroitin, and −0.5 cm for the two in combination when compared with placebo. The treatment duration in most of the included RCTs exceeded 24 months, but the selected nine time windows (up to 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21 months or more) were all less than 24 months. In other words, the overall difference in pain intensity based on a summary of all time points cannot reflect the curative effect after the treatment duration. The effects of those treatments were probably underestimated. Second, Wandel’s study searched electronic databases from inception to June 2009 and only included the large-scale RCTs with more than 200 patients. Their evidence was limited because of the very small number of included RCTs (only ten), especially for the combination group, which is deemed as the most promising treatment depending on only a single RCT. Such results may not be reliable and lack of external validity. Last, in their study, only pain relief and the structure-modifying effect, but not the function improvement effect, were measured.

High-quality RCTs and observational studies could be complementary to each other. The efficacy evidence of a treatment in clinical trial often lacks of generalizability, while observational studies can report a more realistic expectation for treatment benefits in a real-world environment39. However, some scholars argued that the internal validity of trails is more important than generalizability40. Yang and colleagues conducted an analysis with the marginal structural model and their results indicated that the use of glucosamine and chondroitin did not relieve symptoms or modify disease progression (JSW) in a 4-year follow-up41. Martel-Pelletier and colleagues conducted a first-line analysis, which suggested that the use of glucosamine and chondroitin with or without NSAIDs over 24 months showed a disease-modifying effect42. Another analysis conducted by Bertin and colleagues used a French database suggested a significant NSAID-sparing effect of glucosamine in patients with knee OA43.

The evidence provided by this study could support the conclusion of the latest RCT that glucosamine and chondroitin have comparable efficacy over celecoxib in pain relief and function improvement10. This study also suggested that the combination of glucosamine and chondroitin is the only treatment exhibiting clinically significant improvement from baseline pain and function. In recent years, changes in attitudes about the use of glucosamine and chondroitin in the treatment of OA have been witnessed. For example, the Irish national trend in prescribing of glucosamine increased significantly from 2002 to 2009, but then started decreasing in 2010 and 2011 under the influence of the international guidelines44. Before 2010, all available guidelines supported the use of glucosamine and chondroitin in symptomatic relief, and indicated that glucosamine and chondroitin may have a structure-modifying effect45,46,47,48. In 2010, the turning point came with the OARSI recommendations which suggested that the effect size for pain relief from glucosamine and chondroitin diminished49. In the latest available guidelines, glucosamine and chondroitin have even been labeled as not recommended2,3,4. Based on the research findings of the present study, we do not oppose the use of glucosamine plus chondroitin for the treatment of knee OA in the future clinical practice, especially for patients with moderate-to-severe knee pain50. In addition, we strongly recommend that the future guidelines should reconsider the use of glucosamine and chondroitin for the treatment of knee OA.

In view of the limited number of direct evidences that compare glucosamine plus chondroitin with others options, further high-quality RCTs involving direct comparisons, particularly industrial independent trails that examine the structure-modifying effects, are desired. Some additional questions should be addressed as well, e.g., what is the best treatment duration (shortest in the case of effective). Moreover, the follow-up duration of future studies should be extended to determine whether the treatment effects may diminish with time. Apart from these areas, there is a particularly important suggestion with respect to the target population. On the one hand, subsequent RCTs need to test the effect of the combination of glucosamine and chondroitin on knee OA patients with moderate-to-severe pain. On the other hand, future studies should pay more attention to the early-stage OA1.

Conclusion

The present study provided evidence for the symptomatic efficacy of glucosamine plus chondroitin in the treatment of knee OA.

Additional Information

How to cite this article: Zeng, C. et al. Effectiveness and safety of Glucosamine, chondroitin, the two in combination, or celecoxib in the treatment of osteoarthritis of the knee. Sci. Rep.5, 16827; doi: 10.1038/srep16827 (2015).

Acknowledgments

The authors thank Tony Ades, Sofia Dias, Nicky Welton, Debbi Caldwell (School of Social and Community Medicine, University of Briistol) and Kieth Abrams, Alex Sutton, Nicola Cooper (Department of Health Sciences, University of Leicester, University of Leicester) for their course “Indirect and Mixed Treatment Comparisons, 2015”. This work was supported by the Hunan Provincial Innovation Foundation for Postgraduate (CX2014A005), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 81201420, 81272034, 81472130), the Provincial Science Foundation of Hunan (No. 14JJ3032), the Scientific Research Project of the Development and Reform Commission of Hunan Province ([2013]1199), the Scientific Research Project of Science and Technology Office of Hunan Province (2013SK2018), the Doctoral Scientific Fund Project of the Ministry of Education of China (20120162110036).

Footnotes

Author Contributions All authors had full access to the data in the study and take responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis. G.H.L. and C.Z. conceived the study. G.H.L. and C.Z. were responsible for conception and design of the study and drafted the manuscript. J.W., H.L., Y.L.W. and D.X.X. contributed to data collection. T.Y. and S.G.G. contributed to preparation and data analysis. Y.S.L. and W.L. contributed to study retrieval. G.H.L. contributed to revision of the manuscript. All the authors contributed to the interpretation of the data and critically reviewed the manuscript for publication.

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When it comes to health supplements, glucosamine and chondroitin are among the most popular. Just how popular are they? According to one estimate, about one in five Americans takes glucosamine and one in 10 takes chondroitin. The cost of these and other non-vitamin supplements and herbal remedies is close to 15 billion dollars per year. So you’d think they must be highly effective. And yet, that’s not so clear.

They are touted not only as arthritis pain relievers but also as treatments to prevent joint disease. Yet, a number of past studies have come to mixed conclusions — some small studies found that people felt better taking glucosamine and/or chondroitin, but at least as many have found no benefit. A 2010 analysis of multiple studies (called a meta-analysis) found that among more than 3,800 people with osteoarthritis of the knee or hip, treatment with glucosamine, chondroitin, or the combination was no better than placebo. The case for these supplements protecting joint health or preventing arthritis is similarly weak.

A new study of glucosamine/chondroitin

A new study of glucosamine and chondroitin enrolled 164 patients with knee pain due to osteoarthritis and gave half of them a combination of glucosamine and chondroitin; the other half received an identical placebo pill. The study was stopped early for an unusual reason — those taking the supplement actually reported worse symptoms than those taking a placebo. This raises the possibility that taking glucosamine and chondroitin might make your joints feel worse than doing nothing.

Does this spell the end of people taking glucosamine, chondroitin, or both? It’s unlikely. While the evidence of benefit is certainly not compelling, people who feel it is helping them may not care so much about individual studies. Even if a treatment is not effective on average, there may be folks who, for whatever reason, get real relief from it. And, even if the benefit is from the placebo effect, the benefit is real and that is hard to give up on. Finally, people are taking glucosamine and/or chondroitin for a number of reasons and conditions other than osteoarthritis of the knee — so this study may not apply to them.

And what about the downsides?

In general, glucosamine and chondroitin are thought to be safe. However, as with any medication, there are potential risks. In this latest trial, people taking the glucosamine-chondroitin combination reported diarrhea and abdominal pain more often than those taking the placebo did. Other reported side effects include

  • heartburn
  • drowsiness
  • headaches
  • allergic reactions (especially if you have an allergy to shellfish).

A small 2013 study found that taking glucosamine may increase the risk of glaucoma, a condition that can threaten vision if not treated. Chondroitin may act as a blood thinner, so it comes with a warning about potential bleeding. Another concern is drug interactions, a problem that can develop with any combination of medications; check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking glucosamine and/or chondroitin. Many doctors warn patients that the FDA does not regulate supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin, so they may not contain the amounts stated on the label or there could be contaminants in them.

And, of course, there is cost to consider — health insurance usually doesn’t cover these supplements. (I found a glucosamine-chondroitin supplement online for $17.50/month at a popular online supplement chain.)

Should you give it a try?

When my patients ask me about whether they should take glucosamine and/or chondroitin, I keep an open mind. I check on reports of interactions with my patient’s current medications, let them know that the FDA does not regulate these products, and that they are considered unproven. But if a patient is interested in taking these supplements, I rarely object. And if, after a period of time, they have noticed no improvement, I might suggest they discontinue them. As long as they have the information they need and the treatment seems safe, whether to take an over-the-counter supplement for joint symptoms is a decision I leave to my patients.

The bottom line

For advocates of glucosamine and/or chondroitin, this recent study is only the latest bit of bad news. But this is not likely to be the last word. There are different types and doses available and they are taken for a number of different conditions. There may be certain situations in which they are particularly helpful. We’ll need additional research to know what they are.

Related Information: The Joint Pain Relief Workout: Healing exercises for your…

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