Glucosamine and Bad Press – Should You Still Take It?

by Dr. Jason Barker December 09, 2014

Glucosamine and Bad Press – Should You Still Take It?

>Last week, another study headline announced that the popular joint nutrient glucosamine was “no help for knee pain”. Of course, we weren’t surprised by (yet another) hit-job styled study and accompanying news headlines denouncing this particular nutrient.

There are a number of flaws in this study that make it completely irrelevant and misinforming. Unfortunately, studies like these make headlines while the actual truth is never revealed – not to mention that even if glucosamine were worthless, the medical standard for joint pain is ibuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which actually inhibit cartilage repair and regeneration. But never mind that!

In this particular study, the researchers looked at structural changes in the knee as a way to monitor if glucosamine helped.  The time frame allotted for the study was 6 months, however according to most guidelines a minimum of a year is needed to allow for accurate measurement of structural changes.  Changes over a 6-month time are nearly imperceptible, as it takes decades for osteoarthritis (wearing of joint cartilage to occur).  You wouldn’t water your lawn and expect it to turn green in 15 minutes, either!

One of the investigators involved in the study even made the inaccurate comment that “It doesn’t work – There’s a group of patients who get a reduction in pain when they take glucosamine, because glucosamine is a sugar and sugars can be analgesic to some people”. Because (insert sarcasm) we all know that by adding 1.5 grams of “sugar” in the form of this nutrient to the hundreds of grams of real sugar in the standard American diet will make a perceptible dent in joint pain!

While glucosamine is a carbohydrate, it acts nothing like sugar in the body and there’s just no truth whatsoever to this person’s highly inaccurate statement.

Further, there are good studies that show a benefit on joint pain from taking glucosamine over the long term (years) rather than just a few months. (1,2)

One of the investigators is even quoted as saying “Although tempting to say that no advantage to glucosamine was shown and even some evidence that it was worse than placebo, we need to temper our interpretation because of the low rate of progression, as this means the study did not have adequate power to detect even a relatively large difference between treatment and placebo. It suggests to me that this remains an unresolved issue that requires a larger and/or longer study even with MRI-based measurement approaches.”

In other words, the investigator quoted is saying that the study wasn’t long enough nor was designed to accurately assess the difference between glucosamine and a placebo.  So, I’m confused as to why this study was even written up, and why it got such a damning headline saying that glucosamine doesn’t work!

It’s a shame that an inexpensive and safe treatment for the biggest cause of joint pain and disability is given such poor treatment in the news. The media historically only reports negative results from poor studies while drug companies spend tens of millions on advertising convincing us into buying and ‘asking our doctors’ for the latest drug!

glucosamine is safe, effective, affordable and can limit the amount of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories a person takes (which damage the kidneys, liver and joints). And if taking it can lessen disability and even prolong the need for surgery, it’s a win-win and deserves better treatment in the media.

So, if you do take glucosamine, please continue to do so regardless of what you read in the media.

 

1. Fransen M., et al. Ann Rheum Dis. 2014 Jan 6

2. Bruyere O., et al. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2008 Feb;16(2):254-60.

Dr. Jason Barker
Dr. Jason Barker


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