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Glucosamine is an amino sugar that occurs naturally in the body. This one-molecule substance consists of glucose and a hydrogen and nitrogen amine. Amino sugars are different from other body sugars, as they form part of carbohydrates. Their function is also different as they are not a source of energy, but rather are included in body tissue structure. Therefore, glucosamine plays a role in forming and maintaining the body's tissues—for example, constructing nails, skin, eyes, bones, ligaments, tendons, heart valves, discharging mucus from the respiratory system, digestive system, and urinary tract. Glucosamine helps blend sulfur into the cartilage. When
Glucosamine is not readily available from any primary food source. Commercial preparations of glucosamine are derived from chitin, which is a substance found in the outer covering of such shellfish as lobster, crab, and shrimp, as well as in such animal connective tissues as the marrow of chicken bones. Commercially prepared glucosamine comes in three formats: glucosamine sulfate, glucosamine hydrochloride, and N-acetyl-glucosamine (NAG).
Glucosamine works to stimulate joint function and repair. It is most effective in treating osteoarthritis (OA), the most prevalent type of arthritis. A number of studies over the last 20 years have shown that glucosamine is helpful in relieving arthritis symptoms. For example, a 1982 clinical study compared usage of the NSAID ibuprofen with glucosamine sulfate, for osteoarthritis of the knee. During the first two weeks, ibuprofen decreased pain faster, but by the fourth week the glucosamine group was well ahead in pain relief. The overall results showed 44% of the glucosamine group had pain relief compared to 15% for ibuprofen. A British study published in 2002 reported similar findings regarding the effectiveness of glucosamine in relieving pain associated with arthritis. A team of Japanese researchers has suggested that glucosamine relieves the pain of arthritis by suppressing the functions of neutrophils, which are white blood cells that contribute to the joint inflammation found in arthritis. Other researchers think that the sulfur content of glucosamine contributes to its healing properties.
Several studies have concluded that over-the-counter preparations of glucosamine sulfate are safe for long-term treatment of osteoarthritis. These are readily available in the dietary supplement sections of most pharmacies. Glucosamine preparations are sometimes classified as nutraceuticals, a term used to refer to foods or food ingredients that are thought to provide medical or health benefits.
Harvard Medical School recently conducted a somewhat unorthodox study in which patients scheduled for hip surgery were given ground chicken bone supplements. After two weeks of taking these supplements, their pain was reduced considerably.
As of 2002, however, updated guidelines issued by the American College of Rheumatology for the treatment of osteoarthritis continued to list glucosamine along with acupuncture and electromagnetic therapy as treatments that are still under investigation for treating OA.
Author Info: Sharon Crawford, Rebecca J. Frey PhD, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, 2005
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