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Glucosamine: No Real Relief for Chronic Lower Back Pain

The popular supplement glucosamine doesn’t appear to relieve lower back pain, according to new research.

Eight out of 10 Americans will experience lower back pain during their lifetimes. For some it’s a fleeting inconvenience, but for others it’s a chronic condition affecting health, work and quality of life. In search of relief, more than a quarter of the millions of Americans with chronic back pain take glucosamine, but a new study reports that this widely available dietary supplement provides little real benefit.

A team of researchers at the Oslo University Hospital looked at 250 people over the age of 25 with chronic lower back pain who also showed signs of osteoarthritis in the lower back. Half were given 1,500 milligrams of glucosamine; the rest were given a placebo.

Patients were asked to describe their back pain using a standard rating scale. At the start, all the patients scored between 9 and 10 on a scale of 24. After six months, the placebo and the glucosamine groups showed the same improvement, both rating their back pain at about 5 on the scale.

“We found no difference in pain level or quality of life between those taking glucosamine and those taking the placebo,” says Philip Wilkens, lead author and a research fellow in the orthopedic department at the University of Oslo in Norway. While the study found no adverse effects from taking glucosamine, patients suffering from chronic low back pain will most likely not benefit from taking the supplement, Wilkens says.

“This was a well-done study to test a widely used therapy,” says Andrew L. Avins, M.D., research scientist in the Division of Research at Northern California Kaiser-Permanente in Oakland, and author of an editorial on glucosamine and lower back pain.

“And while I would not encourage clinicians to recommend glucosamine as a treatment for chronic lower back pain, if a patient is taking it and believes it’s helping, that merits a discussion between physician and patient,” he says.

The study appeared in the July 7 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Cathie Gandel is a freelance writer based in Bridgehampton, N.Y.

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