About 27 million Americans suffer degenerative arthritis, or osteoarthritis, making it the most common form of arthritis. It is one of many conditions that were once considered an inevitable part of aging, but that we are learning more and more about how to predict, prevent, and control. Osteoarthritis results from the gradual wearing down of the protective cartilage on the ends of bones where the joints are. The likelihood does increase with age, and it is also more common in women, obese people, people with bone deformities, and people who have suffered repetitive stress injuries or other joint problems.
Now researchers have found that sulfur compounds play an important role in maintaining this protective layer and preventing arthritis. One is hydrogen sulfide. This is ordinarily a malodorous poison, but enzymes produce it, safely, in the body, and research suggests that it can be harnessed to reduce swelling and inflammation in arthritic joints. It appears that releasing it in the body slowly—as happens in the natural process—may have some therapeutic effect. Another compound, sulforaphane, is released by eating broccoli, and to a lesser extent other cruciferous vegetables. Sulforaphane has anti-inflammatory properties and it impedes the enzymes that are responsible for destroying the protective cartilage. That means the compound may play a role in halting or reversing the degeneration that leads to arthritis.
Scientists are also looking into possible treatments. Currently, arthritis is generally treated with a combination of medication and physical therapy, however the medication consists only of painkillers—including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and narcotics—to address the symptoms, and there is currently nothing that can be done about the cartilage degeneration that is causing the condition in the first place. Similarly, therapy and medical devices such as braces can help patients avoid pain but do nothing to end it. The sulfur compounds are one line of research in that direction, and scientists also have a new tool to help in the fight. New imaging techniques are helping doctors get a better look at what is going on in a patient’s joints, so as to have a better model of what arthritis looks like. This can help them see where the problems lie and what might be done to arrest the degeneration so it doesn’t get worse.