In February, several researchers at the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons annual meeting reported that there was enough evidence to recommend the use of glucosamine as an alternative to anti-inflammatory drugs.
Dr. Moskowitz won't go that far. "Basically, if my patients tell me they're taking it, I don't deter them," he explains. "I say, 'Try it for six months and see if you get a response."
If that's not a ringing endorsement, there's reason to be cautious. Experts argue over how and why the product might work. While some believe the combination helps re-grow cartilage and reverse arthritis, others suspect it acts primarily as a pain-reliever or anti-inflammatory drug. In addition, most studies have evaluated glucosamine or chondroitin independently while nutritional supplements typically bundle them together. In theory, the two should complement each other but it hasn't been proven.
Sold as a nutritional supplement and not a drug, glucosamine/chondroitin products are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. They appear to be relatively safe, but no long-term safety tests have been done. Product quality and potency are not well-controlled, either. In tests, some products have been found to contain much smaller amounts of active ingredients than listed on the label.
The National Institutes of Health now is launching a major study to answer many of these questions. Until its results are in, if you're consider using the supplement, follow this advice from the Arthritis Foundation: Let your doctor know that you are using the supplement. A physician can monitor your progress and be alert for allergies and potentially harmful interactions. Chondroitin supplements may be dangerous if you are taking blood-thinning medications or daily aspirin. Diabetics may need to take special precautions.
Don't take the supplement if you're pregnant or give it to children. The product hasn't been tested in those groups. Don't stop or decrease prescribed medications without consulting your doctor.