Glucosamine is a naturally-occurring substance found in the body. It plays a number of important roles in the maintenance of joints, including the building of ligaments, cartilage and the lubricating fluid that allows joints to move smoothly.
With age, many joints in the body begin to show signs of wear and tear. The exact problems can vary significantly but one of the most common is known as “osteoarthritis”. Here, the cartilage that otherwise protects the joints begins to wear thin. This results in joints becoming inflamed or even misshapen, leading to reduced mobility and increasing pain.
Even minor cases of osteoarthritis can cause discomfort, whilst more advanced cases can become so debilitating that replacing the joint entirely is considered to be the best solution. Of course, in older individuals such extreme methods of treatment are not without their complications and risks.
Little wonder, then, that arthritis sufferers are so willing to consider what some might deem “alternative” or “complementary” therapy in the hope of reduced joint pain. Over the last few years glucosamine has become one of the best-known dietary supplements, taken by thousands of people to support joint health. But what does the science tell us about the potential benefits of taking glucosamine?
Historically, joint pain has been treated either with over-the-counter ibuprofen or, in more extreme cases, with doctor-prescribed anti-inflammatories. One of the most interesting impacts of regular glucosamine supplementation seems to be its ability to reduce the discomfort that many osteoarthritis sufferers face on a daily basis, potentially providing a more “natural” solution than prescription drugs.
One notable scientific study tried comparing the impacts of both ibuprofen and glucosamine on patients with clinically-significant joint pain from arthritis. The patients in question were divided into two groups, with each half receiving a different treatment. The results were then monitored carefully, looking for improvements in joint discomfort.
What the experts found was rather interesting. In the first few weeks the patients on ibuprofen experienced a significantly greater improvement in discomfort than those taking glucosamine. However, this was far from the end of the story. Medication was continued, and over time the glucosamine group began to experience more and more improvement.
As the scientists themselves reported “by week 8 the glucosamine group were outperforming the ibuprofen group”. It would seem from this study that whilst glucosamine may be slower to work than more traditional painkillers, given time they can be just as effective (or even more so).
Another study was carried out, but this time without ibuprofen; sufferers were either prescribed a regular glucosamine supplement or a placebo that was designed to have no impact on joint discomfort. They found that the glucosamine-takers reported improvements of as much as 25% in pain, function and joint stiffness over the placebo group.
The pain-relieving benefits of glucosamine are also backed up by study in Portugal, in which 1,208 patients were provided 1.5g of glucosamine per day. They found that “the symptoms of pain at rest, on standing and on exercise… improved steadily through the treatment period”. This is particularly interesting as pain can vary with activity, and a supplement that can offer far-ranging improvements in joint discomfort can be of particular benefit to sufferers.
The findings of these and other studies paint a fascinating picture of glucosamines potential to alleviate the pain of osteoarthritis and it has been proposed by experts that glucosamine “may offer a comparatively safe alternative to nonsteroidal-inflammatory drugs for treating osteoarthritis” and that this pain-relieving effect is likely to be due to it’s “cartilage-rebuilding properties”.
Whilst most glucosamine research has focused on the potential benefits of pain relief this is far from the whole story. Indeed, some other experiments by medical practitioners have suggested that glucosamine supplementation may actually help with joint mobility itself. This is hardly surprising, of course, when you consider the earlier findings that glucosamine doesn’t seem to just “numb” joint pain but may actually help to slow down joint degeneration itself.
One study prescribed both regular exercise and glucosamine supplementation to see whether a combination could lead to measurable improvements in joint health. Patients were encouraged to embark on gentle walks of at least 3000 steps, at least three times a week, before the results were collated. The scientists concluded that when combined with exercise “glucosamine sulphate may help to reduce the symptoms” of osteoarthritis.
Elsewhere, scientists focused their attention not only the patient’s perspective but on physical measurement. As described earlier, one of the greatest causes of pain in osteoarthritis sufferers springs from thinning of the joint cartilage, which can result in bones rubbing against one another. In this study the space between joints was measured as in indication of degeneration; reductions in the space between joints suggesting a worsening of the condition.
In this group, half of participants were provided with chondroitin supplementation while the other half received a placebo. The findings suggest that supplementation did indeed have an impact on joint space, with the experts concluding that “chondroitin sulfate is effective for reducing the rate of decline in minimum joint space width in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee”.
Additional studies have gone further, and suggest that glucosamine and chondroitin may even have a “structure-modifying” impact, though research on this front is still at its infancy.
There does seem to be a growing body of rigorously-tested data that suggests that glucosamine – and it’s partner chondroitin – may well offer a safe and cost-efficient way to fight the symptoms of osteoarthritis.
Whilst these supplements may be slower to have their full impact than more traditional pharmaceuticals, the end result is often just as beneficial. Tests suggest that at dosages of around 2000mg per day the majority of improvements are present within eight weeks of continued use.
Anyone suffering from age-related joint discomfort may wish to speak to their doctor about the possibilities of supplementation as a way to ease ongoing joint pain and reduced mobility.