Q Are joint health supplements a waste of money, or can they actually help people with arthritis? How can I tell the good ones from the bad ones?
A The question isn’t whether joint health supplements work. The question is whether they work well enough to justify the cost (which can, depending on the brand you chose, range from $10 per month to more than $60 per month).
Glucosamine and chondroitin are the most commonly found ingredients in joint health supplements. Both are components of cartilage, the spongy tissue that cushions your joints — until it doesn’t. The idea is that supplying more of these cartilage building blocks might prod your body to make more cartilage.
Numerous studies have found that glucosamine (with or without chondroitin) relieves pain and other symptoms of osteoarthritis about as well as over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil). Unlike these drugs, however, glucosamine doesn’t cause stomach irritation or pose a risk to your liver or kidneys. However, glucosamine isn’t a silver bullet: patients typically see a 20-30% improvement in their pain and joint-related symptoms.
Research studies can generally tell us how well these supplements work, but they don’t necessarily predict how well they’ll work for you. While the average improvement in pain and stiffness is modest, some people have better results than others. Others get little to no benefit.
If you want to give joint health supplements a try, look for one that contains glucosamine sulfate, not glucosamine hydrochloride, as the sulfate form seems to be more effective. The dosage found to be most effective in research is 500 mg, three times a day. (I suggest taking these supplements with a meal or snack to avoid stomach upset.) Glucosamine also works better the longer you take it: allow at least three months to start seeing results.
At that point, you’ll be in a good position to decide whether they are improving your quality of life enough to justify an ongoing commitment. If you haven’t noticed much improvement by then, there’s probably not much use in continuing to take joint supplements.