Should I try Glucosamine and Chondroitin Sulfate?

This is a question I often receive from people suffering body aches and pains. The answer on this dietary supplement is that, as you probably guessed, it depends.

Although we do not know the exact mechanism of action, glucosamine and chondroitin  (G/C) are thought to interact with cartilage in the weight bearing joints, namely the knees and low back. Unless you count the placebo effect, neither of these ingredients offer much for wrists, elbows, shoulders, muscle strains, ligament sprains, or tendinopathies (achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, epicondylitis, etc.).

Low back pain is so broad and complex that any small benefit to the structure and function of the lumbar spine discs is trivial and difficult to measure. As for the knee joint, well controlled studies that are not funded by supplement manufacturers seem to give mixed results.

Overall, some results indicate that G/C helps people with mild to moderate knee arthritis experience less knee pain and increased functional performance. Although it had been thought that glucosamine and chondroitin work together for maximum benefit, evidence is mounting that leads some researchers to question the need for chondroitin.

It is important to point out the obvious fact that knees do not exist in isolation, and there are many factors relevant to cartilage wear and tear. From my physical therapist bias, I'm certain of what G/C does NOT accomplish for the knee.

G/C will not address deficits in hip strength or flexibility. It will not address impaired ankle mobility or problems in foot structure and function. G/C will not iron out the subtle nuances and asymmetries of your gait pattern. G/C will not confront your running, squatting, or sports habit layered over your specific biomechanical issues.

Yes, I'm aware that addressing these things take a little more time and effort than swallowing a few horse pills per day. If it were possible to design a G/C study that adequately controlled for these mechanical issues, I imagine that the effects of supplementation would be...well, mixed, with slight improvement at best (basically the data we have now).

It is thought that at least 3 to 6 months of supplementation (at a cost of at least $25 per month) are required to show any signs of effectiveness. Since the safety of G/C has been well established, there's at least no harm in considering a $75 to $150 experiment.


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