Many of us have heard of, or even used, the popular supplements glucosamine and chondroitin. Though the research is mixed, some evidence suggests that these supplements may alleviate symptoms often associated with osteoarthritis (OA) such as joint pain and stiffness.

What are glucosamine and chondroitin and how do they work?

In the body, glucosamine and chondroitin are natural compounds found in healthy cartilage. The supplements you can buy over the counter in the United States are derived from animals or manufactured in a laboratory. While you can buy each of these supplements individually, they are most often sold as a combined supplement.

Glucosamine and chondroitin have anti-inflammatory properties and use several mechanisms to protect cartilage. One such mechanism is the protection of cells called chondrocytes. These cells help to maintain cartilage structure. By protecting these cells, glucosamine and chondroitin have the potential to slow cartilage degeneration in the joints, thereby reducing pain.

The Evidence is Mixed

Unfortunately, multiple studies of the effects of glucosamine and chondroitin in people with OA have produced mixed results. Because of this, there is no clear-cut recommendation to take these supplements for OA. In the 2019 OA treatment guidelines, both the Arthritis Foundation and the American College of Rheumatology give a conditional recommendation of chondroitin sulfate for the treatment of hand OA while the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says chondroitin isn’t helpful.

Most experts agree however that glucosamine and chondroitin are safe, with no serious side effects reported in studies. That being said, they may interfere with other medications or diseases, so it is best to speak to your doctor before starting these or any new supplements.