Do glucosamine and chondroitin really help arthritis pain?

Some people swear that over-the-counter dietary supplements called glucosamine and chondroitin ease arthritis pain, reduce stiffness, and protect joints from further damage. Others say they don't help.

A major study of glucosamine and chondroitin published in The New England Journal of Medicine concluded that how much relief a person gets depends on how severe his or her arthritis pain is to begin with. Among 1,500 participants with knee osteoarthritis, glucosamine and chondroitin taken alone or together provided no more relief than placebo. Those with mild pain did not see much benefit. People with more severe pain experienced modest relief with the combination of glucosamine and chondroitin.

If you're wondering whether glucosamine and chondroitin might work for you, the answer is "it depends." If your osteoarthritis pain is moderate or significant, try taking both glucosamine and chondroitin for two to three months. If you find they ease your pain, it's reasonable to keep using them. If not, save your money. As always, if you choose to try these or any other vitamins, supplements, or alternative therapies, tell your doctor.

For more on living with osteoarthritis and the latest treatments for this condition, buy Living Well with Osteoarthritis, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.