Joint supplements are designed to repair and regenerate cartilage, plus cut down on inflammation in your joints. These supplements accomplish these goals by including cartilage-boosting compounds like glucosamine, hyaluronic acid, and MSM, as well as powerful antioxidants like turmeric and quercetin.
Looking to add a joint supplement to your regimen? Here’s how it can help:
Joint supplement benefits
1. Joint supplements fight the inflammation and degeneration that accompany joint pain
The most common source of joint pain is arthritis, in which damage and inflammation cause a loss of joint cartilage and increasingly painful and restricted motion.
Because arthritis affects so many people, joint supplements–usually based on cartilage-reinforcing compounds like glucosamine and chondroitin–have been heavily researched for their ability to improve joint function, reduce pain, and potentially even slow down joint damage.
2. Joint supplements are backed by huge amounts of research
The types of formulations investigated are usually those based around glucosamine, chondroitin, boswellia, and MSM, as these are all compounds that have a close biological link with the cartilage that makes up your joints.
Principally, glucosamine-based joint supplements are studied for their benefits related to arthritis, since it is such a public health burden.
However, it’s quite likely that many of the benefits of joint supplement extend to other joint pain-related conditions, because the same kind of damage to cartilage and inflammation that is involved with arthritis is linked to other causes of joint pain as well.
3. Joint supplements may help slow the progress of arthritis
In the case of arthritis, joint supplements appear to be effective at both reducing pain and slowing or halting the narrowing of the joint space that is caused by arthritis’ progressive degenerative damage to cartilage.
In 2006, the well-known New England Journal of Medicine published a clinical trial of glucosamine, chondroitin, and the combination of both together in the treatment of knee osteoarthritis (1).
The authors found that the best outcome in terms of pain reduction came when the glucosamine and chondroitin were used in combination, at a dosage ratio of 500 mg of glucosamine to 400 mg chondroitin. This suggests that the two supplements work in combination better than alone to decrease inflammation and joint pain.
A review article by Chad Deal and Roland Moskowitz in the journal Rheumatoid Disease Clinics of North America discusses how chondroitin and glucosamine work together to help reduce pain and slow the progress of joint space narrowing in arthritis patients (2).
The biological mechanism are complex, but the important part is that they do reflect a biologically plausible means by which a joint supplement can actually help improve the functioning of your joint.
4. Multi-ingredient joint supplements could be more effective
This same study found that a combination of glucosamine, chondroitin, and quercetin was more effective than a placebo when it comes to reducing the pain related to knee osteoarthritis.
It still hasn’t been demonstrated that quercetin pushes the benefit of a glucosamine/chondroitin supplement beyond its normal level, but still, these initial results are promising.
Glucosamine and chondroitin also appear to be effective at slowing the pace of joint space narrowing–a classic sign of the progression of arthritis.
This was the conclusion of a review article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine which included a large range of smaller studies published since 1980 (3). Glucosamine in particular had a “highly significant” effect on the narrowing of the joint space in arthritis; i.e. it significantly slowed the rate of joint space narrowing.
5. Chondroitin can reduce pain and improve function, but might not prevent the progress of arthritis
Chondroitin, while effective at improving pain and joint function, did not have an effect on joint space narrowing in this same study.
This suggests that any joint supplement you get should definitely include glucosamine to slow down the root problem in arthritis, the destruction of the cartilage between your bones. It is this process that leads to narrowed joint space and ultimately to greater arthritis pain and activity limitations.
6. A joint supplement with collagen can increase bone strength and repair cartilage
Collagen is a biological compound that is a critical building block for the structural components of your body, whether that’s your bones, skin, or joint cartilage.
While it seems too simple to work, just taking a supplement that contains collagen in its raw form actually appears to help your body increase its structural integrity. That was the conclusion of a paper published in 2016 by two researchers in Brazil who evaluated all of the scientific literature on collagen supplementation between 1994 and 2014 (4).
After analyzing the results of nine different studies, which used animal models, cells under a microscope, and studies in humans, the researchers found that taking hydrolyzed collagen was consistently associated with increases in bone density (in the case of osteoporosis) and improvements in joint cartilage growth (in the case of osteoarthritis).
Moreover, the researchers noted that research also supports the relief of joint pain in cases of arthritis thanks to collagen supplementation.
These findings make a strong case that inclusion of collagen in its hydrolyzed form as a potentially beneficial ingredient in a joint supplement.
7. Even a small amount of hyaluronic acid in a joint supplement can be extremely beneficial
The role of hyaluronic acid in lubricating joints has been known since at least the 1970s, but its exact mechanism of action has only been uncovered relatively recently (5).
Research published in 2005 in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery tested the effects of very low concentrations of hyaluronic acid on the biological activity of collagen cells to discover whether hyaluronic was exerting a direct benefit, or was acting as a cellular signalling indicator (6).
If hyaluronic acid wsa only effective at higher concentrations, this would suggest that the molecule acts directly on cartilage; however, if even a very low concentration of hyaluronic acid generates substantial benefits, it would instead indicate that it switches on beneficial cellular mechanisms that are already in place.
By studying the effects of collagen cells under different concentrations of hyaluronic acid, the researchers were able to show that it was this latter mechanism that was responsible for the benefits of hyaluronic acid.
Exposure to even very low concentrations of hyaluronic acid increases DNA synthesis in collagen, and increases synthesis and deposition of several compounds related to the structure of the collagen matrix within joint cartilage.
These findings suggest that a joint supplement should include hyaluronic acid for optimal efficacy, though only a very small amount may be necessary for joint health benefits.
Joint supplement side effects
Large clinical trials have established that joint supplements based on glucosamine and chondroitin are very well-tolerated; the risk of side effects in a joint supplement based on these supplements is exactly the same as the risk of “side effects” from taking a placebo.
Joint supplements are likely safe for people with seafood allergies. Even in people with seafood allergies, glucosamine (which is derived from shrimp) does not contain clinically relevant levels of the allergen that causes the allergy, so they are safe even with a seafood allergy (7).
One case report describes a patient whose asthma was believed to be aggravated by a glucosamine supplement, but aside from this single report, establishing this as a significant cause of side effects is difficult to do (8).
After all, asthma is quite common, and the clinical trials of glucosamine should have uncovered any potentially harmful association.
Joint supplements with less-common herbal ingredients might be riskier. If you are taking a joint supplement that is based on some of the rarer, less well-studied herbal extracts and ingredients, you may be running a higher risk of side effects. These substances have not been tested in large clinical trials, so their potential for adverse effects remain unknown.
Joint supplement dosage
Aim for 500-1000 mg of glucosamine and chondroitin to match the research. Typical large clinical trials of joint supplements that have found success have used dosages of approximately 500 to 1000 mg of glucosamine and nearly as much chondroitin.
Glucosamine and chondroitin dosages should be similar. The study mentioned earlier in the New England Journal of Medicine found good results when glucosamine and chondroitin were combined at nearly equal ratios (their study used a 5:4 ratio).
Given that the combination of both got better results than glucosamine or chondroitin alone, it suggests that any joint supplement that you use should have both glucosamine and chondroitin at dosage levels that are at least roughly the same.
Joint supplement FAQ
Q: Do joint supplements really work?
A: A substantial amount of clinical research has been conducted on several key ingredients in joint supplements, including glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM, and hyaluronic acid.
The research done to date indicates that these supplements can reduce pain and decrease inflammation with fairly good reliability among people with specific joint disorders, like osteoarthritis.
Some evidence suggests that these compounds can even stimulate the synthesis of new collagen in damaged joints, though these studies are more controversial as it’s more difficult to prove that cartilage integrity has improved.
So, in this sense, joint supplements do stand a good chance of reducing pain and improving your quality of life if you have joint pain, particularly if it’s attributable to conditions like osteoarthritis, which have been studied intently in the context of supplemental solutions for pain and disability.
On the other hand, a joint supplement isn’t likely to be a miracle cure; these supplements won’t be able to reduce decades of damage and degeneration in your joint cartilage.
Q: What do joint supplements do?
A: Joint supplements are over the counter products that include a range of compounds that reduce joint pain, help stimulate cartilage healing, or reduce inflammation inside your joints.
Typically, a high quality joint supplement will include ingredients that accomplish all three of these tasks. If you have a condition that causes joint pain, like an old knee injury or osteoarthritis that is causing degeneration and damage in your cartilage, you’ll have pain as a result of damaged cartilage, plus the inflammation that’s associated with injury and arthritis (keep in mind that the -itis suffix implies an inflammatory root to the problem).
Compounds like hyaluronic acid help stimulate increased cellular activity and repair in your cartilage, while compounds like glucosamine help provide precursors to the building blocks for actually repairing the damage to your cartilage.
An ingredient like collagen, on the other hand, can be directly incorporated into damaged cartilage. So, in terms of the range of biological mechanisms used by various joint supplement ingredients, there’s quite a lot of variety.
However, they all boil down to one of a handful of solutions to joint pain: reducing inflammation, increasing the synthesis of cartilage, or improving joint lubrication and cushioning.
Q: What vitamins are good for joint pain?
A: On the vitamins front, the primary benefit for joint pain will come from vitamins that help reduce inflammation. A condition like osteoarthritis generates quite a bit of inflammation, and arthritis pain is also linked to conditions that are associated with systemic inflammation like obesity.
The causal link between obesity and arthritis was originally thought to be the result of the increased load that joints have to carry (and this does likely contribute to the problem), but researchers noticed that obese people tend to get arthritis at a higher rate even in their fingers, suggesting a link to inflammation instead.
So, a vitamin like vitamin C or vitamin E, which acts as a powerful antioxidant in your body, makes a lot of sense if you have inflammation related joint pain. Interestingly, though it’s not an antioxidant per se, vitamin D appears to play a protective role in preventing or slowing the progress of arthritis as well, according to research published on multiple large cohorts of people (9,10).
Having high vitamin D levels is associated with lower rates of both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis in these studies, and given the dearth of joint supplements that currently incorporate sufficient levels of vitamin D, it might be the most important additional vitamin supplement to take for joint pain.
While the exact link between why higher levels of vitamin D are protective against joint disorders like arthritis has not been established, given the strong evidence for vitamin D and other health benefits, it’s well worth inclusion in your supplementation regimen if you have joint pain or are trying to prevent it.
Related: Our best joint supplement picks
Joint supplements combine ingredients like glucosamine and hyaluronic acid, which target cartilage repair and synthesis, with powerful anti-inflammatories like quercetin, turmeric, or curcumin.
If you are having chronic joint pain, adding a joint supplement to your daily routine could help cut down on painful inflammation and stiffness, and may even help repair and regenerate your cartilage.