Arthritis is a condition that causes joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. The most common form of arthritis is osteoarthritis. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one in three US adults is affected by an arthritis-related condition - the number one cause of disability in America.
The pain, stiffness, and inflammation experienced by people with arthritis makes it difficult for them to stay active - not only that, inactivity makes their health worse, including making sore joints even more painful.
Hyaluronic acid (HA) is typically used to treat knee osteoarthritis by direct injection into the joint. Unlike anti-inflammatories, HA treatment doesn’t cause gastric bleeding or ulcers, raise the risk of a heart attack, stroke or kidney disease.
Most patients need three to five weekly injections - and over 50% of all patients treated this way experience improvements in pain and function that can last for up to a year.
On the other hand, getting an injection directly into any joint is an invasive procedure that involves pain and a small chance of introducing an infection. It’s also expensive and may not be covered by health insurance.
HA is a family of extremely large molecules present in many tissues that makes them flexible, including joint cartilage - a whitish-colored living tissue found on the ends of bones. When it’s healthy, cartilage is extremely smooth, providing a low-friction environment for easy movement. Also, it acts as a shock absorber to protect bones from fracturing.
HA holds together molecules that make up cartilage and gives joint cartilage its special properties, making it the smoothest and most friction-free substance in nature.
HA is also the main functional component of synovial fluid, making it thick and viscous so it lubricates joints well. But during osteoarthritis, joint cartilage erodes, bone underlying the cartilage changes leading to bone spurs and the amount of HA in the joint drops significantly.
Research shows that HA inhibits enzymes that break down cartilage in the joint, along with blocking the local actions of pro-inflammatory chemicals. HA also appears to disrupt nerve impulses transmitting pain signals from the joint to the brain. Importantly, HA molecules can trigger production of more HA, highly desirable in osteoarthritic joints.
How safe is HA for health? Overall, HA and its salts are considered very safe for use.