Nutraceuticals for Patients with Arthritis

If you suffer from joint pain associated with arthritis, it’s likely you’ve heard of or even tried some (if not all) of the following supplements: glucosamine, chondroitin, fish oil, thunder god vine, capsaicin, SAMe, and curcumin.

Didn’t find the one you are taking or have taken? That’s because this is just a partial list of many products called nutraceuticals on the market for arthritis. The word nutraceutical is a combination of nutritional supplement and pharmaceutical (medication or drug).

Physicians know that these products are not going to go away. If anything, the number of people taking these nutraceuticals for osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis will continue to grow. That’s why the information in this article is so timely and important. It is an update for physicians on the use of nutraceuticals for joint disease. It was written by orthopedic surgeons in Australia. The purpose is to aid physicians in understanding these therapies and knowing how to counsel patients when taking them.

The supplements recommended are slightly different depending on whether the underlying joint disease is osteoarthritis (OA) or rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Fish oil is the one supplement used for both conditions. As the name suggests, the oil comes from fish and contains omega-3 fatty acids. It is a natural anti-inflammatory that is not made by the human body.

Studies show that fish oil does decrease joint tenderness and morning stiffness. Patients taking fish oil have also been able to decrease the use of nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Physician should let patients know it can take eight to 12 weeks for the full benefit of fish oil to kick in.

As with all drugs and supplements, fish oil can have adverse side effects for some people. These may include gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), diarrhea, headaches, and a lingering fish taste in the mouth or odor on the breath. Studies are still needed to see if fish oil can prevent or delay the progression of osteoarthritis (OA).

As for other supplements used for OA, glucosamine and chondroitin top the list. These can be taken separately or combined together to aid in the formation of joint cartilage. They may also help prevent inflammation and the breakdown of joint cartilage. Studies done so far support the long-term use of these supplements. Patients taking them for at least one (up to three) years have fewer joint replacements compared with patients receiving a placebo (sugar pill).

Another popular supplement taken by seniors for joint pain is SAMe, which stands for S-adenosylmethionine. Now you can see why the name SAMe is preferred! Each cell of the body creates its own SAMe. In the joint, it thickens and protects cartilage while also preventing joint pain. Taking SAMe as a supplement seems to improve pain and function.

In the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), many patients find relief with capsaicin. Capsaicin contains an enzyme that gives chili its “heat.” Used as a cream rubbed over and around a painful joint, it creates irritation of the skin. This, in turn, activates nerve fibers in the skin. The end-result is to distract the brain-body from recognizing joint pain.

Thunder god vine is a Chinese herb that can be taken as a pill or applied as a skin cream. Unlike some of the other supplements taken for joint pain that must be taken for months to years to be beneficial, thunder god vine provides pain relief and decreased joint swelling in the first 10 to 14 days. There are some potential adverse side effects though such as anemia, kidney problems, headache, hair loss, upset stomach, and even male infertility.

Physicians will find this update and summary on nutraceuticals for arthritis joint pain helpful when answering patients’ questions. The information provided will guide physicians in giving evidence-based counsel about what to take, when to take it, and how long to take any of these supplements.