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Arthritis Patients Caught In Bind

For 70 million arthritis sufferers, the last few months have been a nightmare. The medicines they rely on to ease their aches and pains have come under fire.

First, Merck withdrew its popular arthritis drug Vioxx because it increased the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Then the FDA required a black-box warning about serious skin reactions and cardiovascular risks associated with the prescription pain reliever Bextra.

Next, the National Cancer Institute stopped a clinical trial of Celebrex prematurely because patients taking this medicine had a higher rate of heart attacks and strokes.

There was even bad news about over-the-counter naproxen (Aleve). The National Institutes of Health stopped an Alzheimer’s prevention trial early because patients on naproxen had a higher incidence of heart attacks and strokes.

Celebrex, Bextra and Vioxx were supposed to be safer than older nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). People taking medicines like aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, diclofenac or sulindac are at greater risk of serious digestive tract reactions. Experts estimate that more than 100,000 people are hospitalized every year with ulcers and more than 16,000 die from complications.

That’s why doctors and patients were excited about COX-2 inhibitors like Celebrex and Vioxx. These drugs were supposed to spare the GI tract. But now an FDA safety officer estimates that as many as 139,000 people may have suffered heart attacks as a consequence of these drugs.

What’s an arthritis patient to do? Many people are considering non-drug approaches to relieve their stiff joints. Although glucosamine and chondroitin have never received FDA approval, there are a number of studies suggesting that these dietary supplements can help some people.

The problem is that the FDA does not regulate dietary supplements for quality or dose, so it is difficult to choose a supplement that’s worth the money. We suggest checking the Web site www.consumerlab.com to see which ones passed the tests this organization put them through. Another online source for information on glucosamine and chondroitin is www.drtheo.com.

We recommend that people planning to try glucosamine and chondroitin get their cholesterol measured before starting and measured again after 6 months. No studies have shown that these compounds raise cholesterol, but some readers of this column report that reaction.

Other non-drug approaches include herbs such as turmeric and ginger, as well as home remedies like grape juice and Certo or gin-drenched raisins. We have prepared for readers of this column a new Guide to Alternatives for Arthritis with more information on these non-drug approaches. Anyone who would like a copy, please send $3 in check or money order with a long (no. 10) stamped (60 cents), self-addressed envelope: Graedons’ People’s Pharmacy, No. AA-2, P. O. Box 52027, Durham, NC 27717-2027.

We enjoy hearing from readers who have had success with one or more of these approaches: “Turmeric, pectin and glucosamine work great on my arthritis. I forgot to take it for two days because I was tired from being active again for the first time in years. I’ve learned my lesson and will take it every day.”

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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