One common question that I hear from patients with osteoarthritis (OA), or degenerative joint disease, is whether or not there is a supplement they can take to help “build back the cartilage”. To be honest, the answer is not clear and I say this because the research surrounding popular supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate is conflicting.
Let me give you a bit of a background on cartilage and why these supplements have become popular. Cartilage is a dense and flexible tissue that is found throughout the body. Articular cartilage is a type of cartilage that covers the bones that make up a joint. It acts to provide a smooth surface for these bones to slide over and it also absorbs shock.
Over time, articular cartilage degenerates and because it does not have a blood supply, it is very slow to regenerate and heal. In simple terms, glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are biological components of articular cartilage, which is why it seems intuitive to take them in supplement form to help regenerate cartilage. However, our bodies are too complex and so to try to synthesize cartilage artificially, such as in supplement form, simply does not equate. As Dr. Ben Ollivere points out in “The Body” by Bill Bryson:
“Cartilage is remarkable… it is many times smoother than glass… and you grow it yourself. It’s a living thing. None of this has been equaled in engineering or science” (p. 160).
So it is no wonder that it is inconclusive on whether these supplements are effective at building back cartilage. They do not mimic our body’s natural synthesis.
The bottom line from research: glucosamine or chondroitin sulfate may provide benefit if you have knee or hip OA. Like any supplement or medication that you take, there are side effects. If you do choose to take glucosamine or chondroitin sulfate, I advise you speak to your doctor first to make sure if it safe for you to do so.
My bottom line: I suggest you spend your money elsewhere and try other alternatives that research shows are effective in treating osteoarthritis which help with reducing pain and improving function. These approaches include weight loss, physiotherapy, massage therapy, heat and cold, low impact exercise and anti-inflammatory medications (as indicated by your doctor). The best thing I think you can do: keep moving! Movement is medicine as it lubricates our joints.
Do you have OA? What has worked for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
Registered Physiotherapist and Kinesiologist