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Chondroitin for Arthritis

Can It Help Osteoarthritis?

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Updated July 10, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Chondroitin sulfate is a substance often used in treatment of osteoarthritis. Found naturally in the cartilage surrounding your joints, chondroitin sulfate is also available in dietary supplement form. When used to treat osteoarthritis, chondroitin sulfate is often taken in combination with other natural remedies (such as glucosamine).

Benefits of Chondroitin Sulfate for Osteoarthritis:

Although research from several decades ago indicated that chondroitin sulfate may help treat osteoarthritis when combined with conventional medicine, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) warn that more recent studies have yielded mixed results.

A research review published in the journal Osteoarthritis and Cartilage in 2008, for instance, concluded that there is sufficient clinical data to support the claim that chondroitin sulfate is a "valuable and safe" treatment for the symptoms of osteoarthritis. The review's authors classify chondroitin sulfate as a "symptomatic slow-acting drug," and note that such treatments must be taken regularly for several weeks in order to produce significant benefit.

Published in Current Medical Research and Opinion, another research review from 2008 concluded that chondroitin sulfate appears to have a "slight to moderate" effect on osteoarthritis symptoms. For the review, scientists looked at five meta-analyses (reports evaluating data from previously published scientific studies) that focused on clinical trials comparing the use of chondroitin sulfate to placebo (or no treatment at all) in patients with osteoarthritis. Noting that chondroitin sulfate has "an excellent safety profile," the review's authors also found that in one of the five reports, pain relief appeared to steadily increase between four and 12 weeks of treatment with chondroitin sulfate.

On the other hand, a 2007 meta-analysis from the Annals of Internal Medicine determined that the benefit of chondroitin sulfate for relief of osteoarthritis-related symptoms is "minimal or nonexistent." For the meta-analysis, investigators looked at 20 trials (with a total 3,846 patients) that compared chondroitin sulfate with placebo or with no treatment in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee or hip. The authors of the meta-analysis note that most of the reviewed trials were of poor quality, and conclude that "use of chondroitin in routine clinical practice should be discouraged."

Chondroitin Sulfate Skin Creams for Osteoarthritis:

Although skin creams containing chondroitin sulfate are purported to reduce osteoarthritis pain, the NIH warns that there is no scientific support for the claim that chondroitin sulfate can be absorbed through the skin.

Is Chondroitin Sulfate Safe?

Although chondroitin sulfate is likely safe for most people, it may trigger a number of side effects (including mild stomach pain and nausea). Some people have also reported experiencing diarrhea, constipation, swollen eyelids, leg swelling, hair loss, and irregular heartbeat after using chondroitin sulfate.

There's also some concern that use of chondroitin sulfate may worsen asthma. Therefore, it's important for people with asthma to seek medical advice before using chondroitin sulfate.

In addition, some research indicates that chondroitin sulfate may contribute to the spread or recurrence of prostate cancer. Until more research is conducted, the NIH advises that people with (or at high risk for) prostate cancer avoid use of chondroitin sulfate.

People using warfarin (a medication used to slow blood clotting) should also avoid use of chondroitin sulfate. Some reports show that taking chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine in combination with warfarin can increase warfarin's effects and, in turn, lead to serious bleeding and bruising.

Where to Find Chondroitin Sulfate:

Widely available for purchase online, chondroitin sulfate is sold in many drugstores, grocery stores, natural-foods stores, and stores specializing in dietary supplements.

The chondroitin sulfate found in dietary supplements is typically obtained from animal sources, such as cow cartilage.

Should You Use Chondroitin Sulfate to Treat Osteoarthritis?

According to the NIH, chondroitin sulfate may slightly reduce pain in osteoarthritis patients (especially those with osteoarthritis of the knee).

If you're considering the use of chondroitin sulfate in treatment of osteoarthritis, make sure to consult your physician before starting your supplement regimen. Self-treating osteoarthritis with chondroitin sulfate and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.

Sources:

Monfort J, Martel-Pelletier J, Pelletier JP. "Chondroitin sulphate for symptomatic osteoarthritis: critical appraisal of meta-analyses." Curr Med Res Opin. 2008 May;24(5):1303-8.

National Institutes of Health. "Chondroitin sulfate: MedlinePlus Supplements." January 2012.

Reichenbach S, Sterchi R, Scherer M, Trelle S, Bürgi E, Bürgi U, Dieppe PA, Jüni P. "Meta-analysis: chondroitin for osteoarthritis of the knee or hip." Ann Intern Med. 2007 Apr 17;146(8):580-90.

Uebelhart D. "Clinical review of chondroitin sulfate in osteoarthritis." Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2008;16 Suppl 3:S19-21.

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