Swiss scientists have shown that a drug, commonly used by osteoarthritis sufferers to reduce pain, can actually slow cartilage damage.
A two-year study on 300 patients at Zurich university hospital found that chondroitin sulphate helped reverse symptoms of the illness, relieved pain and could prevent the disease from occurring.
"It is the first time we have something to treat the disease," said Professor of rheumatology, Beat Michel, after presenting the results of the study to a European congress in Stockholm.
Osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease, is the most common types of arthritis, especially among older people, and affects ten per cent of the population.
Relief and protection
Researchers found that chondroitin sulphate both relieves and protects cartilage.
The substance can help patients at all stages of the illness, even if symptoms have not yet surfaced, Michel told swissinfo.
"Other studies are clearly needed to confirm these results but since the drug has almost no side effects and the drug is rather inexpensive, I would say its worth trying over a certain period of time," he said.
The drug is expected to be effective in treating other forms of arthritis, such as arthritis of the hip and spine. Arthritis of the knee was researched because it is the most common form of the disease.
Chondroitin sulphate is found naturally in meat and fish. Patients took a brand of the supplement, called Condrosulf, which is produced from purified fish cartilage by a Ticino-based company, Institut Biochimique.
Past studies had reported pain relief but there had been few definitive results about the effects of these supplements.
Osteoarthritis is characterized by the breakdown of the joint's cartilage. Cartilage is the part of the joint that cushions the ends of bones. Cartilage breakdown causes bones to rub against each other, causing pain and loss of movement.
Most commonly affecting middle-aged and older people, the disease affects hands and weight-bearing joints such as knees, hips, feet and the back.
by Karin Kamp and Vanessa Mock