Supplement Watch: What Works When Workouts Hurt


A little glucosamine may ease all kinds of aches and pains. The popular pill got mixed reviews in a recent study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). But some experts say its smart therapy for knee pain that drives you nuts or a cranky joint somewhere else. Heres the lowdown:

How it works: Glucosamine is a natural compound found in humans and animals; the supplement is made from shellfish skeletons. And chondroitin, a related supplement, comes from cow and shark cartilage.

While anti-inflammatory drugs relieve pain by reducing inflammation, these supplements are thought to restore worn-down connective tissue (cartilage) that cushions bones. Thats important if you have joint pain, because it might be a result of osteoarthritis (OA), a common breakdown of cartilage. Roughly 20 million Americans have OA. And both glucosamine and chondroitin may help make a protein that builds and repairs cartilage.

What to expect: In the NIH study, 79 percent of people with moderate to severe osteoarthritis pain in their knees found that glucosamine and chondroitin reduced discomfort by 20 percent or more; 54 percent using a placebo got the same results. (People with mild pain got no relief.)

Brent A. Bauer, MD, director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at the Mayo Clinic, says the finding is reason enough for a patient with regular joint pain to consider several months of glucosamine-chondroitin therapy ($100 to $200 for three months). Both supplements seem to require two to three months to be effective, and Bauer recommends the combination (1,500 mg of glucosamine and 1,200 mg of chondroitin, three times daily) because its not clear if one works better. Side effects are mild (gas, soft stools).

To find a reliable brand, check with watchdogs like the U.S. Pharmacopeia or And dont dump your ibuprofen or naproxen right away. Take them if youre hurting, Bauer says, and see if you can cut back as the supplements go to work.