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Cure in a Bottle: Key to Healthier Knees May Be Found in Supplements

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Cure in a Bottle: Key to Healthier Knees May Be Found in Supplements

October 11, 2000
By Tom Keppeler , Knee1 Staff

New studies have suggested that what you eat after a knee injury or surgery may help you as much as weightlifting and walking. The so-called cures come from the most unlikely (and, perhaps, least appealing) of places: clam shells, animal protein, and cow’s throats. However, researchers and osteoarthritis sufferers alike agree the natural substances may halt the spread of arthritis and ease their pain.

Osteoarthritis, a degenerative disease that gradually weakens the articular cartilage that cushions and lubricates the knee and other joints, affects most people over 50 in some form. Although research for possible treatments and cures remains in its nascent stages, some laboratories hold hope that a combination of natural treatments may diminish the pain and swelling associated with osteoarthritis, while others are looking into their ability to stave off or improve the results of surgery for such a condition. Among them are:

Glucosamine, harvested from lobster, clam, and crab shells, stimulates the growth of cartilage in its purest form. The substance plays an important role in building a number of materials essential for healthy cartilage. Glucosamine plays a vital role in the production of collagen, which strengthens chondral tissue. The body also uses this substance in the synthesis of hyaluronic acid and glycosaminoglycans, two parts of synovial fluid, which lubricates the knee.

Chondroitin,, which is found in animal cartilage, especially, in the windpipes of cows, may inhibit the ability of enzymes to break down cartilage, according to the Boston Globe. For over a decade, glucosamine and chondroitin have been given in pill form to horses to allay stiffness and improve their gait. Europeans have taken both in capsule form for even longer to treat arthritis in their joints. Since the release of the 1997 book “The Arthritis Cure,” the Globe notes, the still-unproven duo has become one of the trendiest natural remedies around.

Gelatin, the substance found in Jell-O, cosmetics and ointments, has become the latest in the array of possible cures for creaky knees. The substance, which is derived from boiled animal tissues, such as bones, skin and hides, may hold healing properties for arthritis sufferers. In a recent study, Shrewsbury, Mass.-based Rippe Lifestyle tested 175 osteoarthritis patients—half of whom took a daily dose of 10 grams of gelatin while the others took a placebo. Those taking the gelatin improved significantly in strength and work-performance tests, while others did not, according to Reuters Health. The project’s lead, exercise physiologist Sean McCarthy, is quick to point out that gelatin does not re-grow cartilage, but may help maintain it, and even prevent further damage.

Although some compelling evidence exists in their favor, gelatin, condroitin, and glucosamine have yet to be proven effective by an independent, FDA-approved study. Furthermore, researchers still have yet to discover what method (pills, injections, or otherwise) and what quantity makes for the most effective treatment. Although each of the three substances in pure form aids cartilage, no one has yet discovered how to deliver it most effectively to your knees.

Furthermore, all the tests done on the substances have been sponsored by companies that have something to gain from good results. According to Reuters, The Rippe study on gelatin was partially funded by Nabisco, maker of both Knox and Royal gelatin. European studies on chondroitin and glucosamine were nearly all paid for by supplement companies, who have the most to gain from positive results, according to the Globe. One Boston University professor who is now researching the substances’ effects told the paper that previous studies “were not well done.”

Still, compelling evidence exists to suggest chondroitin, glucosamine and gelatin may hold hope for creaky knees, however. Animal tests in Phoenix, Ariz., demonstrated that chondroitin and glucosamine slowed the progression of arthritis in rabbits with cartilage tears. A Case Western Reserve study funded by the National Institutes for Health began this week to study the efficacy of the two supplements. Researchers are planning additional further studies into gelatin’s power as an arthritis fighter.

As doctors research whether what we eat can cure our aches and pains, a healthy diet, anti-inflammatory drugs, and exercise under a doctor’s supervision remain the best non-surgical treatments for arthritic knees. Someday soon, however, a doctor may send a patient home with a precription for clam shells, chondroitin, and some lime Jell-O.

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