The $37 billion supplement industry has released more than 800 remedies for arthritis in recent years.
For consumers battling arthritis—or those who want to ward off future issues—that’s a lot of choices to sift through.
But the science supports a few major options.
Women with high levels of vitamin D are 30 percent less likely to develop arthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
Susan Day, MD, who specializes in arthritis and orthopedic surgery for Spectrum Health Medical Group, said she regularly prescribes vitamin D to patients.
Vitamin D, which comes from sunlight, helps the body absorb calcium, which leads to strong, hard bones.
“We do vitamin D, especially in the pre-operative period,” Dr. Day said. “It’s shown to help with infection, with immunity, with muscle recovery, with nerve recovery and obviously it’s helpful with bone.
“Vitamin D works. Its predominant effect for us is it helps our bodies absorb calcium better,” she said. “I check everybody pre-operatively, and if it’s low, we always supplement.”
In a 2008 article, published in the medical journal American Family Physician, authors reviewed hundreds of published studies on supplements and determined glucosamine is the most effective supplement for arthritis patients—if they choose the right type.
Glucosamine studies using a product called Dona consistently showed benefits for arthritis sufferers, the authors said, while glucosamine hydrochloride formulations have not performed as well.
“The evidence supports the use of glucosamine sulfate for modestly reducing osteoarthritis symptoms and possibly slowing disease progression,” the authors wrote. “However, there isn’t enough evidence to recommend the use of other glucosamine formulations.”
Glucosamine, which is usually derived from crustacean shells, is one of the most widely studied supplements—more than 20 randomized controlled trials involving more than 2,500 patients.
“Objectively, if you look at an X-ray, you can’t tell if it’s working, but subjectively, patients say they feel better,” Dr. Day said of glucosamine. “It’s a building block for cartilage, and the thinking is that cartilage that’s turning over might use it.
“For some folks, it has anti-inflammatory properties,” she said. “Always when I’m talking about it with patients, I tell them there’s no conclusive scientific evidence that it prevents further breakdown, but a lot of folks think it helps, and I let them choose for themselves.”
When you’re trying to decide if you should take supplements, it’s important to first discuss the issue with your doctor, Dr. Day said.
“You need to make sure your family physician knows what supplements you’re taking,” Dr. Day said. “They might interfere with coagulation … or can interfere with other medications. It’s always important to run these things by your physician.”
The natural world
The last category of supplements recommended for arthritis patients are natural anti-inflammatories such as ginger, turmeric and boswellia.
In the Western world, “we make medicine instead of looking to the natural word for medicine, because we think we understand better how the made medicine works,” Dr. Day said.
But ginger has had positive results when put against placebos, she said.
In a recent study, concentrated ginger extract reduced pain and stiffness by 40 percent in arthritic patients. Even if science doesn’t always understand exactly how these natural anti-inflammatories work, patients often see results, Dr. Day said.
“This kind of science has been out a lot longer than our Western medicine,” she said. “People kind of roll their eyes at it, but aspirin is bark—it came from bark.
“There’s some wisdom in these things that have been used for thousands and thousands of years,” she said. “We wouldn’t keep using them if they didn’t work.”