Glucosamine: What Is It And What Does It Do?

Glucosamine Sulphate: What Is It & What Does It Do?

What Is Glucosamine Sulphate?

Glucosamine sulphate and chondroitin sulfate are natural substances found in and around our body’s cartilage cells and therefore considered important substances with regard to our joints.

  • Glucoasmine is an amino sugar that the body produces and distributes in cartilage and other connective tissue.
  • Glucosamine sulfate is a chemical found in the body used to produce a variety of other chemicals that are involved in building tendons, ligaments, cartilage, and the thick synovial fluid that surrounds joints.
  • Chondroitin sulfate is a complex carbohydrate that helps the cartilage in the body retain water.
  • Glucosamine is vital for building cartilage the body’s joint cartilage requires it because it is a precursor for glycosaminoglycans (GAG’s) meaning glucosamine makes GAG’s which are a major component of joint cartilage.
  • Sulfur needs to be incorporated into cartilage in order to make and repair it which glucosamine sulphate plays a crucial role in incorporating sulfur into our cartilage.

Why Do We Need Glucosamine Sulphate?

As we age, our levels of glucosamine go down. Reducing levels may contribute to eventual joint deterioration. Some researchers believe the “sulfate” part of glucosamine sulfate is also important with sulfate being needed by the body to produce cartilage. This is one reason why researchers believe that glucosamine sulfate might work better than other forms of delivering glucosamine such as glucosamine hydrochloride, or N-acetyl glucosamine which do not contain sulfate.

What Is Glucosamine Used For?

Commonly as a supplement it is used for arthritis management, more specifically the most prevalent type of arthritis called osteoarthritis (OA). Also called degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis is highlighted by the breakdown of cartilage (the connective tissue that cushions the ends of bones within the joint). Osteoarthritis commonly affects the thumbs and hands as well as the body’s large weight-bearing joints, such as the hip and knees.
In osteoarthritis the cartilage “breaks down” and becomes “thin” resulting in more joint friction and symptomatically individuals’ often experience local pain, and stiffness at the affected site. Some research suggests taking glucosamine supplements may either increase the cartilage and fluid surrounding joints or help prevent breakdown of the joint cartilage, or perhaps both and positively impact the course and symptoms associated with osteoarthritis.

Where Do You Find Glucosamine?

You cannot get glucosamine sulfate from foods as it is a natural chemical found in the human body, also found in the shells of shellfish. It is naturally present in animal bones, bone marrow, shellfish and fungi. When harvested for dietary supplements it is often from the shells of shellfish, however it can also be made in a laboratory. Most of the scientific research carried out, has been done on the form glucosamine sulfate. Many supplements often have other ingredients added in, including chondroitin sulfate, MSM, or shark cartilage. Currently there is no scientific proof that these combinations are of any more benefit than glucosamine alone.

How Much Glucosamine Sulphate Should You Take?

The majority of research around using glucosamine for osteoarthritis has been conducted on the oral dose or 1500 mg once daily or 500 mg three times daily. Glucosamine is also in some skin creams used to control arthritis pain, yet so far there is no evidence that it can be absorbed through the skin. As a result, any benefits perceived by using these topical creams is suspected to arise from other active ingredients in the cream or the manual application of the cream not from the glucosamine component itself.

Does Glucosamine Sulphate Work And How Long Till You Can Expect Results?

The majority of research has been conducted on osteoarthritis of the knee and some of this research suggests it reduces pain of osteoarthritis in the knee about as well as using the pain reliever Tylenol and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Advil.

  • There is a difference between glucosamine sulfate and these drugs in the time it takes to reduce pain. Unlike the other medications where any symptoms of pain can be relieved relatively quickly, the research suggests glucosamine sulfate effects take about 4-8 weeks to be realised. However, the plus side is that there are suggestions it may continue to provide some relief from symptoms for up to 3 months following stopping the supplement.

Does It Work In Everyone Suffering Osteoarthritis Symptoms?

Worth noting is that it does not seem to reduce pain in everyone using it, as some people report no benefit at all.

  • Some evidence exists that people who take the supplement might be less likely to require total knee replacement surgery.
  • However, studies appear to indicate that if you have osteoarthritis and your symptoms of pain are moderate-to-severe, glucosamine may help. Otherwise, it is probably no better than taking a placebo when symptoms are mild.
  • Other research indicates with mild, or more severe cases, as well as long standing osteoarthritis that glucosamine might not work very well.
  • As well as not being as effective in individuals who are overweight.

Potential Side Effects

As with starting any course of supplements it is important to discuss supplement choices with your doctor. Although it is considered relatively safe some side effects and negative interactions have been associated including:

  • Drowsiness
  • Skin reactions
  • Headache
  • Caution as always with pregnancy and breastfeeding
  • Asthma
  • Diabetes
  • Medicated with Warfin or other anticoagulants

As well as the above, notably anyone with a shellfish allergy to avoid possible allergic reaction may be advised steer clear considering some glucosamine sulphate and chondroitin sulfate products are made from the shells of shellfish. Anyone with a shellfish allergy could consider taking “man-made” glucosamine supplements in an attempt to avoid any such reaction.

Some Of The Research

  • In 2008, researchers reported on a 2-year ancillary study at nine sites in the USA with a subset of participants from the original trial. The results, published in Arthritis & Rheumatism showed that glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, together or alone, fared no better than placebo in slowing loss of cartilage in knee osteoarthritis. Noting that this does not state the individuals did not experience symptom relief it simply states there was no slowing of cartilage destruction. Osteoarthritis is a disease that will have varied symptomatic experiences for the same level of “cartilage change, damage, loss” so this study may indicate that it didn’t change the actual measurable cartilage change but could still impact symptoms and function.
  • Safe and relatively effective for osteoarthritis but no effect on sports injuries. Clinical studies indicate that glucosamine sulfate has been shown to be a safe and relatively effective treatment for osteoarthritis. However, no evidence to date supports or refutes a carryover effect to the athletic population and the injuries that occur in sport.
  • Patients with moderate-to-severe pain reported significant relief from the glucosamine/chondroitin combination. Less benefits reported in individuals with more mild symptoms.
  • No indication of benefit to chronic low back pain (LBP). Conclusions On the basis of the current research, any clinical benefit of oral glucosamine for patients with chronic LBP and radiographic changes of spinal OA can neither be demonstrated nor-excluded based on insufficient data and the low quality of existing studies.

What The Research Suggests Glucosamine Can Do For You

Glucoamsine sulphate may help patients with osteoarthritis. Several scientific studies have shown that glucosamine supplements may help patients with osteoarthritis, especially OA of the hip or knee.

  • Reduces osteoarthritis-related pain
  • Improves function in patients with knee or hip osteoarthritis
  • Reduces stiffness
  • Reduces swelling in the joints
  • Continues to provide relief of symptoms up to 3 months after patients stopped treatment

The Big Question: Should You Bother Taking It?

My answer to the question should I bother taking glucosamine? has generally been, if you can afford it and you have moderate to severe osteoarthritis then you are an appropriate candidate for trialing the supplement. Personally, I would approach the use of glucosamine combined with fish oil (again in consultation with your doctor) and run your “own trial” for a period of a few months. If during this time you experience relief then it is worth continuing, or if you cease taking the supplement and in the subsequent months’ notice a rebound increase in symptoms, then it maybe you are someone who gets benefits from glucosamine, and it is worth considering continuing the supplement longer term.
Conversely if you neither notice an improvement whilst taking the course or a subsequent increase in symptoms when completing the course (that may indicate that there was possibly a small positive effect you weren’t aware of during the course) then perhaps at this stage glucosamine may not be a beneficial option for your condition.

Disclaimer: Sydney Physio Clinic does not endorse any treatments, procedures, products mentioned. This information is provided as an educational service and is not intended to serve as medical advice. Anyone seeking specific orthopaedic advice or assistance on glucosamine and or osteoarthritis should consult his or her general practitioner or physiotherapist.