Although previous studies in the U.S. have had mixed results for chondroitin when used for knee pain, the Swiss researchers said they specifically wanted to study the supplement's effect on hand pain.
Some 27 million Americans -- including one in 10 over the age of 60 -- suffer from osteoarthritis, most commonly in the hands, hips and knees.
The painful condition results from a loss of cartilage, the flexible substance that acts as a cushion between the bones of the joints. Chondroitin sulfate is a naturally occurring component of cartilage. It is regulated and sold as a drug in Europe, but is available as a dietary supplement in the U.S., often paired with glucosamine.
In the Swiss study, researchers used Chondrosulf, a chondroitin drug available in Europe. The study was funded by Chondrosulf's manufacturer.
The six-month study involved 162 patients with hand pain from osteoarthritis. Half were given 800 mg. of chondroitin sulfate daily, half were given a placebo. Neither the patients nor the investigators knew which treatment was being given. At the end of the study, the chondroitin sulfate subjects reported significantly less hand pain and larger improvement in morning stiffness than the placebo group.
The fact that the study was funded by a chondroitin drug-maker makes the results more open to question, rheumatologist Sharon L. Kolasinski of the University of Pennsylvania medical school told the website WebMD. She added, however, that it can't hurt for arthritis patients to give the supplement a try.
One note of caution: Because chondroitin is not regulated as a drug in the U.S., arthritis sufferers can't always be sure of the dosage level when they buy the supplements. Several studies have found a wide variation in the dosage of different brands of chondroitin sulfate. The Arthritis Foundation recommends picking the most reputable brand.
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