I was recently asked if chondroitin supplements are useful in treating arthritis or joint pain. The spoiler answer is no, it seems that there is no evidence that chondroitin has any benefit whatsoever.
First a little background: Cartilage, the material that lines our joints, can get damaged by trauma or by normal wear and tear. This results in arthritis. Chondroitin and glucosamine are the building blocks of cartilage. Some people consume these as dietary supplements (almost like vitamins) hoping that this will lead to healing of damaged cartilage and ultimately improvement in joint pain. While appealing in concept, this is not scientifically plausible. The human body can produce as much of these substances as needed. Consuming excess amounts in the form of supplements is unlikely to add value. Still, it’s important to answer the question with robust scientific studies to know for certain whether there is an effect. Having already given the spoiler answer at the outset (no benefit), here’s the scientific data:
The well-respected journal Arthritis and Rheumatology (published by the American College of Rheumatology) recently published a study of arthritis patients who took either placebo or glucosamine/chondroitin for their joint pain. The doctors/researchers found patients actually did worse when taking the supplements (placebo was better). Personally, I don’t actually believe that chondroitin is worse than placebo). I believe that chondroitin essentially is placebo.
The best study I’ve seen was sponsored by the NIH, referred to as the GAIT study. This trial evaluated 1,229 arthritis patients and randomized them to either placebo, Celebrex, chondroitin alone, glucosamine alone or chondroitin/glucosamine combo (which is how it’s most commonly taken). Celebrex was helpful. All the chondroitin/glucosamine arms were the same as placebo. The researchers even looked at X-rays of patients knees to see if perhaps there was a structural benefit from chondroitin/glucosamine despite the absence of pain control. The X-rays showed the same finding, that chondroitin/glucosamine was the same as placebo.
On the plus side chondroitin/glucosamine is safe (again just like placebo), though it might have the side effect of making your bank account a little smaller.
The evidence seems clear… there’s no benefit to taking chondroitin/glucosamine.
Sources: Glucosamine/Chondroitin Arthritis Intervention Trial (GAIT) (NIH), and Combined Treatment With Chondroitin Sulfate and Glucosamine Sulfate Shows No Superiority Over Placebo for Reduction of Joint Pain and Functional Impairment in Patients With Knee Osteoarthritis: A Six-Month Multicenter, Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial (Arthritis and Rheumatology)