Friday, January 9, 2015

It Pays to Check It Out

With the New Year come resolutions.  One of the most common is to get more exercise.  This article in the Arizona Republic and circulated by the Gannett company asks Perry Edinger, an endurance runner, physician's assistant at Phoenix Children's Hospital who specializes in sports medicine and a consultant to Arizona State University's track and cross-country teams about some common running myths.

I am always interested in these myth stories because they often have surprising information.  The particular myth that caught my eye in this case was about glucosamine and chondroitin for joint pain.  I have seen and heard advertising for these supplements in magazines and on the radio and television.  The announcer confidently states that their pill is very effective for joint pain because it contains glucosamine and chondroitin.  It is a common supplement that anyone can walk into the corner drug store and buy.  In fact “U.S. consumers spent $753 million in 2012 on supplements of glucosamine and chondroitin in an attempt to relieve pain and stiffness from arthritis, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.”  That’s a lot of money.  Shouldn’t we make sure it’s worth it?

The original article says, "There has been no independent research that shows glucosamine or chondroitin have any benefits," but “there is some company-sponsored research that claims benefits.”  Accordingly, Edinger tells people to try it and see if it works for them.  More research is needed, so I turned to other experts.

According to (Harvard Health Publications), The FDA has not approved all uses for chondroitin and glucosamine. “Chondroitin and glucosamine should not be substituted for medications prescribed for you by your doctor.”  They go on to warn of the usual dangers of dietary supplements:  no guarantee of purity, very little independent testing that they really work and no record of long-term side effects.  These two supplements also can be dangerous to people with certain allergies or medical conditions and can have adverse effects when combined with some prescriptions.

In a very well designed 2006 study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and conducted across 16 universities they found some positive results in the treatment of knee pain.  They “found that overall the combination of glucosamine plus chondroitin sulfate did not provide significant relief from osteoarthritis pain among all participants. However, a smaller subgroup of study participants with moderate-to-severe pain showed significant relief with the combined supplements.”  In a 2-year follow up on the same group of patients the supplements “together or alone, appeared to fare no better than placebo in slowing loss of cartilage in osteoarthritis of the knee.”  Taken as whole that is not much of a recommendation.

Finally, Consumer Reports. org refers to the NIH study results that showed some relief for some participants but adds, “subsequent studies have not confirmed that finding.  And treatment guidelines issued in May 2013 by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons don’t recommend glucosamine and chondroitin supplements, citing lack of efficacy.”

Do Americans really spend three-quarters of a billion dollars on potentially harmful supplements with little if any real scientific evidence of effectiveness?  I guess taking the word of that pitchman on the radio is easier than doing 45 minutes of research.

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