Glucosamine is a simple sugar derived from the exoskeletons of certain crustaceans, like shellfish, or from certain grains, like corn or wheat. As we age, the levels of glucosamine around the joints decline. Consequently, the cartilage that cushions the joints deteriorates and may result in the growth of bone spurs and an increase in synovial fluid. This in turn causes soreness and pain. Supplemental glucosamine, which is generally offered in the form of glucosamine hydrochloride or glucosamine sulfate, theoretically strengthens the cartilage and relieves the aforementioned joint pain.
Glucosamine is generally coupled with chondroitin sulfate; conventional wisdom holds that the two are more effective when used together. According to page 12 of National Health Statistics Report No. 12, which was put out in 2008 by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), over 6 million Americans used glucosamine as a complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in 2007. Given glucosamine’s ubiquity, this seems a prime time to briefly discuss the scientific research that has heretofore been conducted on its ability to abate health ailments.
Enter the Glucosamine/Chondroitin Arthritis Intervention Trial (GAIT), a large-scale, multicenter, clinical study funded by the National Institutes of Health whose object was to determine the effects of supplemental glucosamine hydrochloride and chondroitin sulfate on knee osteoarthritis. Only people over 40 years of age with documented osteoarthritis were allowed to participate. The trials—overseen by the University of Utah, School of Medicine—were conducted in 16 centers in 13 states.
The results are thus: in participants with mild joint pain, glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate did not provide significant pain relief. However, in about 79% of the participants with moderate-to-severe joint pain, glucosamine combined with chondroitin sulfate provided at least a 20% reduction in pain, while the placebo did the same for about 54% of participants. While this data seems encouraging, it ought not to be considered definitive; only 354 of the 1,583 participants were in the moderate-to-severe pain group. Thus, more research is needed to better understand glucosamine and chondroitin’s ability (or inability, as the case may be) to treat osteoarthritis and similar conditions.