Joint pain is something most of us can expect to experience at some point in our lives, particularly as we get older.
This is because — much like the rest of our bodies — our joints deteriorate with use over time. There are some situations where joint deterioration occurs more rapidly. This may be due to an underlying health condition like arthritis or even being overweight or obese. In these cases, deterioration of the joints and the associated pain that comes with it is due to inflammation in the body.
Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 805 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.
So, is it possible that glucosamine and chondroitin supplements can relieve that pain or slow the onset of joint damage?
I will first talk about what glucosamine and chondroitin actually are.
Glucosamine is a compound that contains both sugar (that’s where the “glucos-“ in “glucosamine” comes from) and a protein (that’s the “amine” in glucosamine, here amine is short for amino acid). It’s actually found naturally in the body of many animals. In humans, we find it specifically in the cartilage, which is the tissue surrounding our joints.
Glucosamine supplements are often made from the shells of shrimp or crab, but there are varieties that are made in a lab. There’s actually a version made from corn, too. Chondroitin is a large sugar molecule that’s often found attached to proteins in animals. In humans, chondroitin is found in connective tissue, similar to glucosamine. Chondroitin supplements are usually found in the form of chondroitin sulfate and are often made from cow, pig, chicken or shark cartilage.
At this point, you may be wondering if you can get glucosamine and chondroitin from your diet, since they’re both found in the connective tissues of animals. The answer would be yes. Anytime you eat the gristle found in meat, or some of the connective tissue, you’re getting a dose of glucosamine and chondroitin. The problem is the dosage is very small. The amounts found naturally in foods is much lower than what you would get with a supplement. So, that’s why most doctors and nutritionists wouldn’t tell you to just get more glucosamine and chondroitin in your diets. They would likely advise you to take a supplement.
Why might they help? It’s believed that glucosamine, specifically, helps to repair damaged connective tissues, like cartilage. Chondroitin’s claim to fame is that it, first, helps promote water retention which helps cushion the joints and second, may help prevent cartilage breakdown.
Is supplementing with glucosamine and chondroitin safe and effective?
Most researchers study glucosamine and chondroitin together, and it looks like when taken together, they may provide some pain relief after consistent use. Usually, the pain relief isn’t earth shattering — most researchers found that the pain relief was “moderate.” And, folks don’t usually experience this moderate pain relief for a few months. Unfortunately, it doesn’t relieve back or hip pain. Most study participants found some relief in their knee pain.
How much would you need to take to start feeling its effect? As with many supplement studies, the data isn’t super clear. Some study participants experience improvement, whereas others don’t experience any. As far as glucosamine is concerned, the consensus seems to be that 1,200 mg per day in the form of glucosamine sulfate or glucosamine hydrochloride is the sweet spot. Combining that with anywhere from 800 to 1,500 mg of chondroitin each day may provide some modest pain relief. While these supplements may help ease some of the pain, they may not actually repair joint damage that has already occurred. They also don’t seem to help to reduce inflammation, either.
Before going out and buying these products, it’s important to first understand that the quality of supplements available on the market can vary quite a bit. So, be sure to purchase one that has been tested for purity and quality by ConsumerLab.com or look for one or both of these symbols on the supplement packaging: NSF or USP. Also, supplementing with glucosamine and chondroitin can mess with some folks’ blood sugar levels. And if you need to avoid shellfish or other animal products for any reason, be sure you purchase supplements that are vegan friendly. Oh, and if you take a blood thinner like warfarin or other painkillers like acetaminophen (Tylenol), you want to be careful taking glucosamine and chondroitin supplements. The most commonly reported side effects from taking glucosamine and chondroitin are gastrointestinal upset (like nausea). Like I always say, please check with your healthcare provider before taking any supplement. And, again, if you and your healthcare provider decide you can begin taking glucosamine and chondroitin supplements, know that you may not experience any pain relief for several months.
Are there other ways to potentially help manage joint pain and joint damage?
Yes. Definitely stay hydrated. Water helps to cushion the joints. No need to overhydrate, but just try to avoid being dehydrated for long periods of time.
Also, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends both cardiovascular and resistance training but with some modifications to avoid further pain.
For cardio, they say workout at your current level of fitness, but avoid any jarring activities that may be hard on the joints like racquetball or jumping moves (like box jumps) and plyometrics.
For resistance training, don’t go heavy, but aim for a weight that you can lift 10-15 times.
Also, instead of hitting just one body part each day, perform exercises for all the major muscle groups. This will prevent repeated stress injuries. Performing exercises in water or receiving hydrotherapy can also help. And, this is something that’s really fascinating and something that most trainers don’t know: researchers have found that performing your cardio or resistance training at the same time everyday can help minimize muscle soreness, discomfort and even prevent injury!
So, if you like to workout at 9 am, for example, try and stick to that 9 am workout as often as you can. Don’t workout Mondays at 9 am, then Tuesdays at 3 pm, then Wednesdays at noon, and so on. Instead, make 9 am your official workout time. By working out at the same time every day, it may help ease some of the pain you’re experiencing.