Using Supplements to Treat Arthritis
Dr Doron Sher
MBBS, MBiomedE, FRACS (Orth)
Knee, Shoulder, Elbow Surgery
Supplements may have a role to play in the treatment of knee arthritis. Unfortunately herbs and supplements have not been studied in the same way that prescription medicines have, which means we do not have a clear understanding of how they work.
There is an enormous disparity between what people believe about supplements and what has actually been proven scientifically. While it is a normal human response to seek a ‘natural’ and less risky treatment we should also not waste money on treatments that do not work. The importance of a healthy diet, healthy weight range and healthy lifestyle should be a priority when managing arthritis. Seeking dietary and lifestyle advice from a health professional can be of major benefit to arthritis and overall health.
What does the medical literature say?
Researchers have found almost no evidence that dietary supplements work for osteoarthritis symptoms or the underlying cause of the disease. It has been clearly demonstrated that they do not grow new cartilage in the knee.
Does this mean I shouldn’t try them?
My experience is that people either respond very well to the supplements or don’t respond to them at all. It seems that the supplements act as ‘natural’ anti-inflammatory agents in some people but not in others.
What can go wrong?
There is a general lack of safety data available for many herbal medicines. They may contain dozens of compounds and generally their composition is not well characterised or fully understood. Interactions with other prescription medications have not been properly studied. Remember that natural does not always mean safe – Aresenic is natural but will kill you in higher doses.
How to use supplements
My advice is to buy a bottle of whichever supplement you want to try. Check with you pharmacist that it will not interfere with any of the other medications you are taking. Take the medication as directed for a month (or until the bottle is finished). You should then STOP the medication for a week or two and see what happens:
1) You don’t notice any difference – don’t waste any more money on that particular supplement.
2) You feel worse – the medication was probably helping you – start it again.
It is worthwhile stopping the medication from time to time. As I mentioned previously it does not help you grow new cartilage. Since arthritis is a cyclical disease you may find that you are able to stop your medications and your supplements when the arthritis is not bothering you as much.
Do I recommend a particular product?
Since some supplements seem to work for some people and not others you might need to try 2 or 3 different medications before you find one that works for you. Glucosamine and Chondroitin almost certainly does not work.
I prefer the supplements that are made from plants because they are a renewable resource and we don’t have to kill fish or animals to produce them.
Arthritis is a cyclical disease. Try to reduce your medications on the days or weeks you are feeling better and increase them when you are feeling worse. There is no evidence of long term benefit from taking supplements so don’t waste your money unless they are making you feel better now. They seem to work very well in a select group of people and are worth trying since it is possible that they may work for you.