Glucosamine ineffective at reducing low back pain in osteoarthritis patients, study finds

A recent study examined the effectiveness of glucosamine on relieving lower back pain in patients with osteoarthritis of the lumbar (lower) spine.

Glucosamine is a dietary supplement commonly used to treat osteoarthritis of the knee and also osteoarthritis of other joints. Glucosamine is a compound which is used by the body to create new cartilage, and is generally commercially made from the cartilage of fish or other animals. It is believed to be an effective treatment for osteoarthritis, a condition in which the cartilage in a joint has worn down to the point where bone is in direct contact with other bone, causing friction and possibly inflammation, pain, or bone spurs. A lack of glucosamine in the body's system can cause interruption in the rebuilding of cartilage, and allow osteoarthritis to progress further.

The study, led by Philip Wilkens, MChiro (Masters of Chiropractic, a degree which is not given in the USA, but is in Europe) of Oslo University in Norway, involved 250 patients with degenerative lumbar osteoarthritis and lower back pain. These patients were divided into two groups with half being treated with glucosamine and the other half receiving placebo. The treatment lasted 6 months, with surveys at the beginning of treatment, end of treatment, and 6 months after the end of treatment.

The groups both experienced decreased levels of low back pain at the end of treatment and 6 months after treatment, but there was no noticeable difference between the improvement of the placebo group and the group treated using glucosamine. These results indicate there may be little benefit of glucosamine for degenerative lumbar osteoarthritis of the spine. The researchers were not able to identify a specific characteristic in the group of patients where glucosamine was effective.

Patients should know that nutritional supplements such as glucosamine are not subject to the same strict FDA regulations as are medications (such as NSAIDs or narcotic pain medications), although their most common side effects are relatively mild and include upset stomach, nausea, heartburn and diarrhea.

It is possible that glucosamine is effective at slowing the progression of osteoarthritis of the spine, but the one year study was not a long enough timeframe to observe the benefits of its use. The researchers also commented that lower back pain is a very broad symptom with numerous causes. Just because a patient has osteoarthritis of the spine and lower back pain does not mean the pain is caused by osteoarthritis. The researchers called for further testing of glucosamine for other joints with osteoarthritis. So far, research has been mostly limited to osteoarthritis of the knee and of the hip, with the best results for glucosamine treatment for osteoarthritis of the knee.

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