Curcumin and Arthritis: Is It Truly Effective?

Osteoarthritis, a prevalent degenerative joint disease, typically affects individuals in their later years. However, it may also develop in middle-aged individuals or those who have experienced joint injuries earlier in life.

Although various treatments exist—such as exercise, braces or canes, weight loss, pain relievers, and anti-inflammatory medications—none guarantee a cure or consistently effective results. Some individuals may find limited or no relief from these methods. Injections of steroids or synthetic lubricants may also be explored. When all other options fail, joint replacement surgery often proves highly successful, with around one million joint replacements (primarily knees and hips) performed annually in the US.

Understandably, those suffering from osteoarthritis are willing to try nearly anything that appears reasonably safe in the hopes of finding relief. We frequently receive inquiries from patients regarding dietary changes, including anti-inflammatory foods, antioxidants, low-gluten diets, and many more. Unfortunately, the majority of these dietary strategies lack substantial evidence to support their effectiveness. When evidence is available, it typically reveals inconsistent or negligible benefits.

Arthritis and Joint Supplements

If you live with Arthritis or joint pain, make sure you read our expert reviews and recommendations of the best supplements for joint pain. Supplements can improve joint health and reduce the symptoms and pain from Arthritis.

Curcumin for Knee Osteoarthritis: A Potential Alternative?

A study published in BMC suggests that curcumin, a natural compound found in the widely-used spice turmeric, may alleviate knee osteoarthritis pain. The research involved 139 participants with moderately severe knee osteoarthritis symptoms that necessitated nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) treatment. Over a month, participants received either diclofenac (50 mg, twice daily) or curcumin (500 mg, three times daily).

Curcumin, which possesses anti-inflammatory properties, has been recommended for various health conditions, including cardiovascular health and arthritis. However, well-designed studies examining its health benefits remain scarce.

The study revealed the following:

  1. Both treatments provided similar relief for arthritis symptoms: 94% of curcumin users and 97% of diclofenac users reported at least a 50% improvement.
  2. Participants experienced fewer side effects with curcumin. For instance, none of the curcumin group required treatment for stomach issues, while 28% of diclofenac users did.
  3. On average, those taking curcumin lost nearly 2% of their body weight in just four weeks—equivalent to a 3.5-pound weight loss for a 175-pound individual.

What is Curcumin?

Curcumin is a vibrant yellow compound derived from plants belonging to the Curcuma longa species. As the primary curcuminoid of turmeric, it is a part of the ginger family, Zingiberaceae. Curcumin is commercially available in various forms, including as a herbal supplement, cosmetic ingredient, food flavoring, and food coloring.

Proceed with Caution: Factors to Consider Before Taking Curcumin

Although the study on curcumin's potential benefits for knee osteoarthritis appears promising, it is essential to exercise caution before incorporating it into your treatment plan. Several factors warrant further consideration:

  1. The study was small and had a short duration of one month.
  2. It focused solely on knee osteoarthritis, which means the findings may not apply to other types of arthritis or osteoarthritis in different joints.
  3. Curcumin was tested against only one dosage level of diclofenac (not the highest recommended dose) and an uncoated formulation, which might have impacted the study's results. Comparing curcumin with another NSAID or a different dose or formulation of diclofenac could have yielded different outcomes.
  4. The study was unblinded, meaning both participants and researchers were aware of who received curcumin and who received the NSAID. This knowledge can sometimes introduce bias by altering expectations of side effects or benefits.
  5. The study's findings might not be applicable to individuals who were excluded from the research, such as those aged younger than 38 or older than 65, or those with significant kidney or stomach diseases.
  6. Over-the-counter dietary supplements, or "nutraceuticals," are not subjected to the same testing and regulation as prescription drugs. Consequently, information about purity, strength, and potential interactions with other medications or diseases is often limited for treatments like curcumin. Notably, recent reports have highlighted lead contamination in turmeric.
  7. Weight loss as a side effect of taking curcumin may pose a problem for those who are already lean.

Given these factors, it is crucial to consult with a healthcare professional before incorporating curcumin into your treatment regimen for knee osteoarthritis or any other condition.

Existing Knowledge and New Discoveries

What is already known:

  • Turmeric, a popular nutraceutical, is utilized for various health issues due to its anti-inflammatory properties.
  • In-vitro studies indicate that turmeric modulates the NF-kappa Beta immune response similarly to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
  • The American College of Rheumatology and Osteoarthritis Research Society International do not specifically mention turmeric in their osteoarthritis management guidelines.

New findings:

  • Based on randomized controlled trials, evidence supports the use of turmeric therapy for patients with knee osteoarthritis to alleviate pain and enhance physical function. However, the results do not indicate an improvement in performance-based outcomes.
  • Turmeric appears safe and without severe side effects.
  • No definitive conclusions have been drawn regarding the optimal formulation or dosage.
  • Limited studies in this systematic review suggest that turmeric therapy may have similar efficacy to NSAID therapy for pain and function.
  • Current research does not examine the use of turmeric therapy both against and in conjunction with traditional therapies, such as physical therapy.

Final Thoughts

Compared to a placebo, curcumin appears to provide knee osteoarthritis pain relief and improved function. Based on a limited number of studies, its effects seem similar to those of NSAIDs. However, variables such as optimal dosing, frequency, and formulation remain uncertain at present.

Research of this nature is crucial for determining whether dietary changes can effectively alleviate arthritis symptoms. While curcumin may prove beneficial for knee osteoarthritis, it is essential to conduct additional, long-term studies on osteoarthritis and other joint diseases, as well as more extensive safety assessments, before recommending its use.

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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