Alternative Ways to Easing Arthritis Pain

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Alternative therapies for arthritis range from A (clinical trials to date — to recommend the use of glucosamine and chondroitin,” says Theodosakis, also the author of The Arthritis Cure.

In 2003, an analysis of 15 studies of glucosamine and chondroitin was published in Archives of Internal Medicine. The studies involved a total of 1,775 patients – 1,020 taking glucosamine and 755 taking chondroitin.

Researchers found “significant changes” in the symptoms of patients taking them – pain, stiffness, physical functioning, and joint mobility; no placebo group showed that kind of improvement. Glucosamine significantly improved joint space narrowing; it also helped slow the progression of osteoarthritis, researchers found.

Taking at least 1,500 milligrams of oral glucosamine sulfate for at least three years was the most effective in slowing the degenerative process, they reported. While there were similar findings on chondroitin, those findings were not as clear-cut. Overall safety of both glucosamine and chondroitin can be considered “excellent,” according to researchers.

More recently, a study funded by the National Institutes of Health looked only at pain reduction from glucosamine-chondroitin supplements. The study was conducted at 16 sites across the country — and was the most rigorous examination of the widely used supplements ever done, according to researchers, whose study appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Called the Glucosamine/Chondroitin Arthritis Intervention (GAIT) trial, it involved 1,583 people with osteoarthritis of the knee. They were randomly placed into five different groups — each group taking either glucosamine, , both the supplements, the Cox-2 anti-inflammatory pain reliever Celebrex, or a placebo.

Overall, researchers found no significant pain reduction in the patients taking either supplement alone or combined, or in those patients taking a placebo. The patients with mild pain got no greater pain relief — whether they took the combination of supplements, just one supplement, or Celebrex — compared with those taking a placebo.

However, those with moderate to severe knee pain — who took a combination of the two supplements — reported significantly greater pain relief, compared with patients taking either Celebrex or a placebo. This group of 354 patients was too small to prove the findings, researchers said.

What should you do? WebMD asked an arthritis expert. “It seems that researchers are having a difficult time confirming the beneficial effects of [glucosamine and chondroitin],” says Robert Hoffman, DO, chief of rheumatology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

“The good news is the supplements seem to be safe [at the standard dosage], but it’s not clear that they’re beneficial. I don’t feel compelled to highly recommend them. But if patients don’t mind taking another pill — and paying for a pill that may or may not help them — it seems quite reasonable. And really, there isn’t anything else that helps slow the progression of osteoarthritis.”

Choose Wisely

Because the quality of herbs and supplements can vary, even some of these treatments might not work, cautions Tod Cooperman, MD, president of ConsumerLab.com.

ConsumerLab.com reviewed supplement products touted for their pain-relieving benefits. It found that one product, claiming to contain 500 milligrams per serving of “chondroitin sulfate complex” actually contained less than 90 milligrams of chondroitin sulfate — only 18% of the 500 milligrams.

“Fortunately, most products contain what they claim,” says Cooperman. “But consumers should choose their supplements wisely. If a product is not working, it may be the product itself that is flawed, and not the approach.”

Useless, Dangerous Remedies?

There are a number of other alternative remedies that arthritis sufferers try.

Many of those — such as copper bracelets or magnets — may not have much, if any, scientific evidence to back them up or disprove them. Indeed, Kerry Ludlam, a spokeswoman for the Arthritis Foundation, reports that there is a lack of research both for and against the usefulness of alternative therapies.

“There’s a void of information,” she says. Since many of the alternative therapies cited for the relief of arthritis are considered harmless (other than perhaps to your pocketbook), many doctors say that if you want to try them, go ahead.

Other therapies, however, can be dangerous.

Bee venom could cause a potentially fatal reaction in those allergic to stinging insects. And even glucosamine, generally safe for most people, could be dangerous for people . (Shellfish-free glucosamine is now available.) For these reasons, it’s important to check with your doctor first before trying any alternative treatment.

It’s also important to note that herbs and supplements may have unknown and potentially dangerous interactions with medication. If you’re taking medication, it’s best to check with your doctor before trying any supplements.

Getting Started

Though more and more doctors are themselves investigating the benefits of alternative therapies and have no objections if their patients try some, most of them still suggest first following the medical guidelines for the treatment of osteoarthritis released by the American College of Rheumatology and the American Pain Society.

Begin with treatments such as exercise and weight loss, the guidelines advise, in combination with over-the-counter acetaminophen (Tylenol) as directed by your personal physician.

“Try the simplest and cheapest regimen first,” says Litman. “That should be your first line of defense.”