Chondroitin neither prevents nor reduces joint pain in people who have osteoarthritis of the knee or hip, according to a meta-analysis.

A naturally occurring complex carbohydrate that helps cartilage retain water and elasticity, chondroitin supplements are made from animal cartilage and sold in health-food stores, usually in combination with glucosamine, for relief of arthritic pain.

European researchers reviewed 20 trials done between 1966 and 2006 that compared the effects of chondroitin with either placebo or no treatment, in a total of 3,900 patients with hip or knee osteoarthritis. The median age of patients was 61, and most were women. Concomitant pain medication was allowed in all the trials; median duration of follow-up was 31 weeks. The trials used patient-administered assessments to quantify pain.

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Of the 20 studies, only three were large-scale and methodologically sound. These found that chondroitin had minimal or no effect on joint pain. Based on these results, the study authors concluded that the use of chondroitin “should be discouraged” but added that they could not exclude “a clinically relevant effect of chondroitin in patients with low-grade osteoarthritis” (Ann Intern Med. 2007;146:580-590).

In an accompanying editorial (Ann Intern Med. 2007;146:611-612), David T. Felson, MD, of the Boston University School of Medicine, noted that chondroitin is sold in combination with glucosamine, meaning that the results of the meta-analysis may not apply to the combined product. He added that if patients are convinced chondroitin is helpful, it makes little sense to deprive them of it, especially since there are no significant side effects.