What to do if you can't snap your fingers

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Recently I discovered something horrible. I can't snap my fingers with my left hand.

You may be thinking that if this is what I am concerned about I should get a life. But let me explain. There is this neurotic thing that washes over me whenever I suddenly discover I can't do something that used to be well ... a snap.

"Here it is," I immediately conclude, "The dreaded moment when I realize that it is the beginning of the end."

All right, it is probably just a bit of arthritis. But I do not like the implications. And I don't like pain, even if it is in one finger out of 10. And since addiction to painkillers is something I would like to avoid, I always look for alternatives.

The obvious one is the popular supplement glucosamine, that natural product derived from the shells of crabs and lobsters that everyone seems to be taking. It is purported to not only ease joint pain but actually rebuild the decimated cartilage that contributes to arthritic pain. It is often paired with chondroitin, another natural supplement made from animal cartilage, that claims the same pain relieving and regenerative properties.

But not so fast.

In November of last year, the National Institute of Health reported the results of the largest study ever done on this supplement. They concluded that, although glucosamine and chondroitin are safe, for the overall population they are no more effective than not taking them.

There was some positive impact with these supplements, however, for the 20 percent of the subjects with moderate to severe osteoarthritis. And there was a European study presented at the same meeting which found that using glucosamine was more effective treating knee arthritic pain than Tylenol.

What is a former finger-snapper to believe?

I asked one of my most reliable Healthspan advisers, Dr. John La Puma, to weigh in on this. It turns out he knows quite a bit about the subject. His Web site -- www.kneelife.com -- promotes using the right natural supplements along with the right nutrition at the right time of day to treat pain caused by inflammation.

"I think these supplements are worth a try," Dr. La Puma told me. "Adverse effects are mild. I would start with glucosamine alone, preferably glucosamine sulfate, if available. (This is the type of glucosamine used in the European study.) The combo with chondroitin is okay to try, except for men with prostate cancer. (Preliminary clinical research suggests that chondroitin may cause the spread or recurrence of prostate cancer.)

"It can take up to 12 weeks to see an improvement in pain. If it doesn't help by then, stop it and save your money."

Kneelife.com provides some useful information about both nutrition and supplementation when it comes to addressing osteoarthritic pain. Recommendations are given for the purest and most effective glucosamine and chondroitin supplements. The Web site also recommends using other supplements such as Vitamin C, calcium, bromelain, a multivitamin and fish oil, along with which versions of those supplements are best.

Nutrition is also an important part of the KneeLife program and, again, timing is important.

Several years ago, I encouraged my now-85-year-old mother to take glucosamine supplements to help her with her painful knees. Today she is working out three times a week at her gym, relying much less on cortisone shots in her knees and putting her snapless son to shame.

Placebo effect? Who knows? I think I am going to follow in her spry footsteps anyway.

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives and works in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at mseabaugh@semissourian.com.

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