Harvard Women's Health Watch

By the way, doctor: What can I do about osteoarthritis of the knee?

Q. For several months, I've been taking a glucosamine/chondroitin supplement, but I still get painful flare-ups. Do these supplements really work? What else can I do to ease the pain?

A. Until recently, glucosamine supplements (with or without chondroitin sulfate) held great promise as a treatment for the more than 20 million Americans affected by osteoarthritis, a chronic disorder characterized by the breakdown of cartilage in the joints and painful bone-on-bone friction. Both glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are biochemicals that occur naturally in the body and are involved in the growth, repair, and maintenance of cartilage. Early research suggested that these compounds might slow cartilage deterioration and relieve osteoarthritis symptoms, including pain, stiffness, and reduced function. Since habitual use of traditional pain relievers — acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — carries the risk of serious side effects, the public embraced these supplements as a safe long-term option.

Osteoarthritis of the knee

Osteoarthritis is characterized by the breakdown of cartilage, a protective tissue that covers the ends of bones. In the knee, the cartilage covering the condyles (the knobs at the lower end of the thigh bone) degrades, which can result in the femur and tibia rubbing against each other.

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