Glucosamine for osteoarthritis – does it work?

Last modified: December 11, 2019

Osteoarthritis is a disease that primarily has an adverse effect on the cartilage in the joints. When cartilage tissue breaks down, it makes it increasingly more difficult to use the joints. It is also common to experience pain during any exertion. Around one in four people over the age of 45 in the US are currently diagnosed with osteoarthritis. As it is such a common disease, many methods have been tried to treat it. One of these is glucosamine, a substance which many osteoarthritis sufferers take in the form of a pill.

What is glucosamine?

Glucosamine is often mentioned in connection with osteoarthritis and is also sold as a medicine for treating the disease. It is a substance that is found naturally in cartilage and synovial fluid, making it an important substance for those suffering with osteoarthritis, considering that it is specifically the cartilage that is affected. But just because it is available naturally in the body, it doesn’t mean that it works like a medicine. Glucosamine is not actually included in the Swedish scheme under which medicines are eligible for subsidies and it is therefore no longer issued on prescription. On the other hand, it is possible to buy it in pharmacies, health food shops and similar stores over the counter.

Does glucosamine help treat osteoarthritis?

The effect that glucosamine has is slightly better than a placebo in terms of improving the symptoms with osteoarthritis. This has been confirmed by the National Board of Health and Welfare in Sweden and by several extensive international studies. Just because it has had no effect recorded, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should stop taking the product. If you feel you are getting better, it is worthwhile continuing with it, even if it isn’t a medicine recommended by doctors and researchers for treating osteoarthritis.

Does glucosamine have any side effects?

Given that glucosamine is very widely used, numerous side effects have been recorded. Some examples are drowsiness, stomach problems, headaches, and a rash. The product also carries a higher risk of high cholesterol values. Anyone who is allergic to shellfish should not take glucosamine either as this substance is extracted from shellfish.

Are there any alternatives to glucosamine?

There are numerous mentions of rose hip powder, the green-lipped mussel or glucosamine when it comes to treating osteoarthritis. But there isn’t really any medicine available to treat osteoarthritis in the sense that no pills can cure the disease. Herbal medicinal products can, at best, provide a placebo effect, but they largely have no effect at all on osteoarthritis.

The treatment that works for the vast majority is rehabilitation exercises along with a physiotherapist. This fulfills two functions. Firstly, the muscles around the affected joint are strengthened, reducing the load exerted on the actual joint. Secondly, the cartilage is encouraged to repair itself, which also reduces symptoms.

Pain-relieving pills can be used, if necessary, to complement exercise. Cortisone injections can also have a pain-relieving effect for those experiencing a great deal of pain. However, none of these options are good in the long term. The best medicine for treating osteoarthritis is quite simply exercise. This should be carried out, regardless of whether you choose to supplement this with other treatment methods as well or not.

Read more about treating osteoarthritis with over-the-counter drugs.