Joint Resolution

Arthritis sufferers say glucosamine and chondroitin ease joint pain, but science has yet to explain why

Health & Fitness

April 11, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

If you'd guessed 20 years ago what the It drug of the new millennium would be, at least for baby boomers, you probably wouldn't have said a pill made from shellfish shells and cow trachea.

As far as aging boomers are concerned, the pill -- a combination of glucosamine and chondroitin -- does something more important than delivering a high. It may ease the pain of arthritis. What's more, it's the treatment of choice for their much-beloved aging pets. Can you get any more with-it than that?

Glucosamine is the nutritional supplement derived from crab, shrimp and lobster shells, often combined in a large, hard-to-swallow capsule with another supplement, chondroitin sulfate, the one made from cow cartilage.

And, no surprise here, stores aren't giving these capsules away.

So why are Americans, from First Boomer and jogger George W. Bush on down, scarfing them up to the tune of $679 million in 2002, the last year that the San Diego-based Nutrition Business Journal has figures for?

That's up from $20 million a decade ago.

Two reasons.

First, osteoarthritis -- the kind of arthritis involving the breakdown of a joint's cushioning cartilage -- now affects 20.7 million Americans. That's a lot of painful knees.

Second, those hard-to-swallow capsules may actually work. They seem to alleviate symptoms about as well as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Advil, without being as hard on your stomach. (But they usually take longer -- sometimes weeks or months -- to start doing it.)

More intriguingly, they may slow joint deterioration.

Try it; you may like it

"Only recently have people been talking about glucosamine," says Pat Yevics, 53, a runner who lives in Baltimore. "We're all starting to have little nagging things."

Last fall her left knee started to hurt and then gave out in the middle of a marathon. Her diagnosis was torn cartilage, and her doctor suggested she start taking a glucosamine-chondroitin combination before her surgery this January.

"Right before the surgery the knee felt better than it had," she says, "but I went ahead with the surgery anyway. I've been taking it since then. Do I absolutely know it's making a difference? No, but I think it is; and I'm not taking any chances."

That seems to be the attitude of a lot of doctors and their patients. Try it. If it works, keep taking it. If it doesn't, well, there don't seem to be many side effects. And, unlike some nutritional supplements, the claims for glucosamine are backed up with a certain amount of scientific research, at least enough to have the medical profession interested and the Arthritis Foundation using words like "promising."

In the last decade there's been a shift in attitude about "neutraceuticals," which doctors in the past have viewed with suspicion. Dr. David Hungerford, a professor of orthopedic surgery at Johns Hopkins Orthopedic at Good Samaritan Hospital, was an early convert.

In 1996 he decided to try glucosamine, which he had read about in an article, "The Neglect of Glucosamine as a Treatment for Osteoarthritis" in the journal Medical Hypotheses. His fingers had started to be so stiff and sore he was afraid he couldn't operate. It took about two weeks for him to see a difference, although it can take as long as three months.

Glucosamine doesn't act as a pain killer, Hungerford says, or it would work right away, "so it has to be modifying the disease's progress."

In the catbird seat

All this is making Todd Henderson a very happy man. And why not? He's sitting in the catbird seat. A former veterinarian, he's now vice president of Nutramax Laboratories, one of the most successful manufacturers of glucosamine-chondroitin supplements in the country. His company, located in Edgewood, makes CosaminDS, the brand often used in clinical trials in the U.S.

The fact that Henderson was a vet is significant. More than a decade ago he saw a possible market in treating arthritic animals. Who knew then that people would be willing to spend so much money on their cats and dogs to keep them active into extreme old age? Of the 22,000 small-animal veterinary practices in the country, he says, 19,000 now dispense the company's product Cosaquin.

Not only that, Nutramax supplies glucosamine-chondroitin to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus for its elephants' feet. "They give it to them by the bucket load," Henderson says. The several Sea World parks treat their seals with it (for arthritic flippers). And the Baltimore Zoo has used it on its peregrine falcons.

In a Texas A & M study of animal patients, Henderson says, "About 80 percent improved -- about what we find in people."

In the early '90s Henderson's pharmacist father, Robert, developed one of the first patents on a glucosamine-chondroitin combination.

As Todd puts it, "I said, 'Dad, you're nuts. There's nothing you can do for cartilage.' "

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