Many Joint Supplements Are Rife With Misleading Claims. Expert Advice For What Does And Doesn’t Work.
It’s tempting to supplement “just to see if it helps.” But your supplements could be doing more harm than good, especially to your pocketbook.
Marisa Michael, MSc, RDN, CSSD is a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics and author of has a private practice in Portland, OregoNutrition for Climbers: Fuel for the Send. She serves on the USA Climbing medical committee and n. Find her online at nutritionforclimbers.com or on Instagram @realnutritiondietitian for consultations, workshops, and writing services.
You’ve seen the ubiquitous posts on climbing Facebook forums. The ones with grainy pictures of someone’s hand, with a circle drawn around the finger joints. “So, my finger hurts right here, what do I do?” And then everyone comments with their “professional” opinions, as if they are all orthopedic surgeons. Invariably, someone mentions a supplement. Do they really work? My first recommendation: Don’t seek medical advice on Facebook.
My second recommendation: Certain supplements may help. (Always check with your doctor before adding any supplement to make sure it’s appropriate for you.)
It’s tempting to supplement “just to see if it helps.” However, many supplements are rife with misleading claims, contaminants, banned substances, and sketchy “research” backing up the claims. When considering a supplement, first understand what it is for, what you are expecting it to do for you, and how and when to take it to achieve the touted therapeutic benefits. Always use third-party tested supplements that have the Informed Choice or NSF for Sport certification.
Which Supplements Work, Which Kinda Work, and Which Don’t Work
Turmeric/Curcumin: Curcumin is the component in turmeric that is believed to be responsible for anti-inflammatory effects. It may decrease pain. A common dose is 500 mg of curcumin with 5 mg of piperine (which enhances absorption) taken three times per day.
Collagen: Collagen is having a moment. I’ve seen it heavily marketed to climbers. While there is some mixed research, it’s tough to definitively say collagen will help with joint health or pain. It may help with tendon and ligament strength. It will not help with cartilage. The most common dose in research is hydrolyzed collagen at 10 to 15 grams taken about 30 to 60 minutes before a workout. Try it with 50 to 200 mg vitamin C to enhances absorption. Collagen seems very safe, as it’s simply a protein, although it is an inadequate and incomplete protein source for muscle rebuilding and repair (yeah, not even that collagen brand with an added amino acid is better than whey or animal protein).
Bosweilla: Specifically studied in those with osteoarthritis, this gum resin has anti-inflammatory properties. It has been shown to reduce pain in some studies. Recommended dose is 800-1,200 mg three times per day.
Fish oil: Worth mentioning here because it gets a lot of good press for many health outcomes and inflammation, however it doesn’t seem to perform well with regards to joint pain in most research.
Glucosamine/Chondroitin: The darling of joint supplements, these two are often touted as the go-to for joint health and pain. Study after study shows lackluster results in terms of improving joint pain or mobility. If you have osteoarthritis, this may be of some use to you, but not if you have general joint pain from athletic endeavors. Some people swear by it, and if you’re the n=1 where it works for you, go for it. Even if it’s the placebo effect, but alleviates your pain, it’s a win (except for your wallet).
Keep in mind, eating enough food to maintain your training and body processes is essential. Athletes who under-eat are at greater risk for injury and recovering more slowly from injury. Eating enough, sleeping enough, and having a proper training program is your best protection against injury. Eating a wide variety of food to allow for diverse nutrient intake is also useful.
Nutrients involved with joint health include calcium, phosphorus, zinc, vitamin C, vitamin D and vitamin E. No need to supplement unless you have a deficiency—just eat foods from all food groups daily, emphasizing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts/seeds, legumes, dairy, and lean protein.
The bottom line: Supplements are the last defense for joint health. Adopt a well-designed training program and balanced diet with sufficient nutrients and calories. If you do have joint issues, check with your doctor and physical therapist to determine the right treatment protocol for your situation.