Harvard Health Letter

Knees in need

Arthritis sufferers look for answers after a large study finds that glucosamine and chondroitin are ineffective for many.

If your knees ache and creak, you've got lots of company. At least a quarter of everyone over age 55 has had a significant problem with knee pain in the past year. Bad cases can be disabling. Usually the cause is osteoarthritis, a breakdown of the joint cartilage that also causes damage to the bone beneath. There's no cure, which leaves ample room for hope, hype, and halfway measures — and some strange experimentation. Several years ago, German researchers reported that applying leeches to an osteoarthritic knee relieved symptoms. Apparently, leech saliva has some painkilling properties.

Something tells us that leech therapy isn't going to catch on, even if it were to make old knees feel spry again. But glucosamine, which is made from shellfish, and chondroitin, which is made from cow cartilage, already have. Every day millions of Americans — including, reportedly, President Bush — take the supplements, which supposedly work by rebuilding cartilage. Most doctors have had a tolerant attitude about this. Conventional medicine doesn't have any sure thing. Knee replacements are major surgery and a last resort. As long as the supplements don't do any harm, why not give them a try?

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