Chondroitin sulfate is a supplement taken for better joint health.
It is frequently used in combination with other ingredients such as glucosamine for the treatment of osteoarthritis.
It’s also found in several joint supplements.
While chondroitin is mainly considered a supplement for joint health, researchers are also looking into its potential for treating recurrent urinary tract infections, healing wounds and easing joint pain in women with breast cancer.
Chondroitin helps treat osteoarthritis (OA). This degenerative joint disease is one of the most common chronic conditions affecting the joints. It is caused by the wearing down of the protective cartilage on the ends of bones. As the cartilage breaks down, symptoms such as joint pain, swelling and difficulty with mobility set in (1).
A 2011 meta-analysis (a study researching other studies) published in the International Journal of Rheumatology, evaluated the ability of chondroitin sulfate (along with other compounds that are thought to delay progressive joint space narrowing) to slow the progression of cartilage destruction and to help regenerate the joint structure.
The authors concluded that based on the in vitro and in vivo studies and the clinical trials that they analyzed, use of oral chondroitin sulfate for OA reduces pain, improves function and mobility of the joint and reduces the progression of OA (2).
They also noted that use of chondroitin has an excellent safety profile, with as few adverse effects as placebo.
According to the Arthritis Foundation website, a separate 2011 study showed a significant improvement in pain and function in patients suffering from OA in the hands with treatment of chondroitin alone (3).
While some studies show the ability of chondroitin to treat OA and its symptoms, other studies have found minimal to no benefit from chondroitin.
A 2010 meta-analysis of 10 trials involving more than 3,800 patients concluded that compared with placebo, chondroitin (when taken on its own or with glucosamine) did not reduce joint pain or have an impact on preventing the narrowing of joint space. The authors went as far as to state, “New prescriptions to patients who have not received treatment should be discouraged.”
The analysis was published in BMJ journal (4).
Based on mixed evidence on the efficacy of chondroitin in treating OA, further larger-scale studies are needed.
Chondroitin may help heal wounds. A few studies have been performed on animals to assess the efficacy of chondroitin in promoting wound healing. In one study performed on white rabbits, researchers noted that application of chondroitin hydrogel accelerated wound healing at the four-day endpoint (5).
In another study, researchers investigated the role of chondroitin sulfate in the wound-healing process after surgical repair of cleft palate. Using rabbits in the study, treatment with chondroitin sulfate resulted in a dose-dependent increase in cell adhesion and cell proliferation (6).
Chondroitin may help women with recurrent urinary tract infections. A 2107 Spanish study set out to investigate whether or not the intravesical administration (application directly into the bladder via catheter) of chondroitin sulfate and hyaluronic acid is a benefit for women with recurrent urinary tract infections. Twenty-eight women diagnosed with recurrent urinary tract infections were given a combination of 2%-1 g chondroitin sulfate and 1.6%-800 mg hyaluronic acid.
To evaluate the effectiveness of the treatment, improvement in symptoms, reduction of the number of episodes of urinary tract infections and quality of life were considered.
At the end of the study, researchers observed that 55.6 percent of the patients’ urine cultures became negative, while 44.4 percent had episodes of urinary infection, but with milder symptoms. Participants in the study also reported an improvement in quality of life after receiving treatment (7).
Chondroitin helps ease painful joint symptoms in women with breast cancer. Many women with hormone receptor-positive breast cancer report having to discontinue effective aromatase inhibitor (AI) treatment due to painful and stiff joints. Researchers evaluated the ability of glucosamine-sulfate (1,500 mg/day) and chondroitin-sulfate (1,200 mg/day) to alleviate these troublesome symptoms in postmenopausal women with early stage breast cancer.
After 24 weeks, treatment resulted in moderate improvements in joint pain, with minimal side effects. These results were based on a single-arm study, and researchers suggest a need to evaluate efficacy in a placebo-controlled trial (8).
Chondroitin is generally safe to use with no reports of serious side effects. Mild side effects may include diarrhea and abdominal pain, heartburn, drowsiness, headaches and allergic reactions (especially in those with an allergy to shellfish) (9).
Taking it with meals seems to mitigate stomach discomfort.
Studies have shown chondroitin interacting with anticoagulants (blood-thinning) drugs such as warfarin (Coumadin).
Glucosamine might affect the way the body handles sugar, especially in those who have diabetes or other blood sugar problems.
A small 2013 study found that taking glucosamine may increase the risk of glaucoma, a condition of increased eye pressure, causing gradual loss of vision.
Some chondroitin tablets may contain high levels of manganese, which could be problematic with long-term use.
Those who are allergic to sulfonamides, should start with a low dose of chondroitin sulfate and watch for any side effects.
Chondroitin is available in capsule, tablet and powder form. Due to mixed evidence on the efficacy of chondroitin, the ideal dosage is uncertain (10).
For the treatment of OA, the Arthritis Foundation recommends 800 mg to 1,200 mg daily in two to four divided doses. Allow up to one month to notice effect (11).
Chondroitin sulfate is a joint health supplement that has long been taken for the treatment of OA and joint pain. Major studies evaluating its efficacy for the treatment of OA have yielded conflicting results. More studies are needed to come to a consensus.
Chondroitin may also play a future role in the treatment of recurrent urinary tract infections, healing wounds and easing joint pain in women with breast cancer.
Based on its general safety and no reports of serious side effects, some doctors feel that if individuals find it helps them with their OA symptoms, there is no need to stop use. According to a statement by Robert H. Shmerling, MD published on the Harvard Health blog, “When my patients ask me about whether they should take glucosamine and/or chondroitin, I keep an open mind. I check on reports of interactions with my patient’s current medications, let them know that the FDA does not regulate these products, and that they are considered unproven…As long as they have the information they need and the treatment seems safe, whether to take an over-the-counter supplement for joint symptoms is a decision I leave to my patients” (12).