Because chondroitin sulfate was well tolerated, Dr. Gabay says it offers “an interesting alternative to NSAIDs in patients who are susceptible to develop side effects with NSAIDs and in the case of long-term treatment.”

This study adds to a growing – and often conflicting – body of research on chondroitin. Before 2001, many studies showed that chondroitin sulfate did help relieve OA pain and improve function. But newer studies haven’t all agreed. For example, a study published last year in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases showed no difference when hundreds of knee OA patients took the supplement compared to a placebo.

But Dr. Gabay stresses that previous research looked almost entirely at knee OA patients. He says this is the first randomized clinical trial looking at the supplement’s effects on hand OA. “Thus the results cannot be compared to those of studies on other joints,” Dr. Gabay says.

Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, which has rated and evaluated more than 80,000 natural drug ingredients and commercial dietary supplements, classified chondroitin as “possibly effective” for knee OA, but hasn’t assessed it for hand OA. Philip J. Gregory, a pharmacist and editor of the site, says this is a small, short-term study, but he agrees with its conclusion although he finds it a bit sweeping.

“The benefit observed is fairly modest. It’s about 10 percent different from placebo, so that’s small,” Gregory explains. “So people taking this should not expect a huge impact. They should expect modest benefit.”

He stresses the chondroitin in this study was derived from fish – a fact he thinks is important. “Some [chondroitin supplements] are from bovine or other animal sources. I’m generally leery of those because you don’t know what conditions they are manufactured under,” he says. “We generally advise people to stay away from supplements from cows and pigs – animals that might be slaughtered. The risk [of contamination] of anything is probably miniscule. But why risk it at all?”

He says the bottom line for patients is: If you’re searching for something that can help, this might be a supplement to consider.

“It’s something that I think probably would be worth trying. As a pharmacist, I wouldn’t jump out of my chair to recommend it for everyone. But for someone with severe OA like patients in this trial who aren’t getting relief, they have to try something,” Gregory says. “If you don’t feel a benefit in [about] three months, then stop taking it.”

This clinical trial was sponsored by IBSA, a pharmaceutical company in Switzerland that produces chondroitin sulfate. Dr. Gabay says the study was performed independently from the company and Gregory says he sees no evidence of bias in the research.