Supplements Help Relieve Pain of Osteoarthritis

By Pat Anson, Editor

Two natural dietary supplements are effective at relieving pain and stiffness caused by osteoarthritis, without the side effects caused by non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), according to two new research studies.

One study found that a combination of glucosamine and chondroitin was effective in treating knee osteoarthritis (OA), while the other study examined an herbal treatment used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine to treat joint pain.

Osteoarthritis is a progressive joint disorder caused by painful inflammation of soft tissue, which leads to thinning of cartilage and joint damage in the knees, hips, fingers and spine.

The first study was a meta-analysis (a study of studies) involving over 16,000 patients with knee OA. Published in the journal Scientific Reports, it is the first study of its kind to compare glucosamine, chondroitin, and the two in combination, against the NSAID celecoxib or a placebo in the treatment of knee OA.

Researchers found that the combination of glucosamine and chondroitin was associated with significant improvement in pain relief and functional enhancement, compared to placebo, without the high rate of gastrointestinal side effects in patients who received celecoxib.

There was "no significant difference" in pain relief between celecoxib and the glucosamine/chondroitin combination.

"This comprehensive analysis provides us with a wealth of historical data supporting the safety and efficacy of glucosamine and chondroitin in the management of joint health. It is consistent with recent findings suggesting that the efficacy of this combination is comparable to celecoxib in terms of relieving pain and improving function," said lead author Chao Zeng, MD, of the Department of Orthopaedics at Xiangya Hospital at Central South University in Changsha, China.

"This is important news for patients requiring long-term treatment, as the potential side-effect associated with profiles of NSAIDs such as celecoxib warrant consideration of alternative treatment options that are safe and effective."

Glucosamine and chondroitin are both found in healthy cartilage, which acts as a cushion between the bones in a joint. In dietary supplements, glucosamine can be harvested from shells and shellfish or made synthetically. Chondroitin can also be made in a lab, or manufactured from cartilage found in cows, pigs, sharks and other animals.

Chondroitin and glucosamine are popular in supplements used to treat joint pain, but according to the Arthritis Foundation, “most studies assessing their effectiveness show modest to no improvement compared with placebo in either pain relief or joint damage.” The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons also recommends against their use.

The second, smaller study examined the effectiveness of Arthrem, a dietary supplement made in New Zealand that contains an herbal extract from the plant Artemisia annua (Qinghaosu), which has been used in Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years.

Forty-two people with osteoarthritis of the knee or hip were enrolled in the randomized, controlled study, which was published in the journal Clinical Rheumatology. Researchers say patients who took an Arthrem capsule twice a day for 12 weeks had a significant reduction in pain and stiffness and an increase in their physical function.

"The published results show that the natural product, Arthrem, has potential as an anti-inflammatory/analgesic in osteoarthritis," said Dr. Sheena Hunt, study co-author and principal scientist for Promisia Integrative, the company that makes Arthrem and conducted the study.

"Particularly positive results were observed in a subset of patients with mild to moderate osteoarthritis. In this subgroup, the average magnitude of pain after 12 weeks of taking Arthrem was less than half of the value at the start of the study. Arthrem at this dose was also well tolerated with no treatment-related side effects."

Arthrem recently became available in the United States. Those who qualify can sign up for a free, no obligation, two month trial online at

Compared to pharmaceuticals, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration loosely regulates the $35 billion dietary supplement industry and many manufacturers' claims about their products are unverified.  The agency recently announced plans to tighten enforcement of the industry by creating a dietary supplement office.

The World Health Organization estimates that about 10% of men and 18% of women over age 60 have osteoarthritis.