Q. My husband is very active, but has joint pain from arthritis. Are there herbs for arthritis that can help his joints?
A. While injuries and overuse can contribute to osteoarthritis (the most common type of arthritis), physical activity maintains overall health and joint health and forms an essential part of arthritis treatment. Obesity poses a greater threat of joint degeneration than exercise. If activity produces pain, it’s a good idea to consult the family physician.
Secondly, herbs can reduce joint pain and inflammation. Natural arthritis remedies act more slowly than nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, but have fewer side effects. Three—turmeric, ginger and boswellia—come from the Ayurvedic (traditional Indian) tradition and work well in combination.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa), the spice that makes curry yellow, contains the potent anti-inflammatory chemical curcumin. Because of poor stability and intestinal absorption, curcumin is usually combined with bromelain (a pineapple enzyme that alone improves osteoarthritis), piperine (an ingredient in pepper) or phosphatidylcholine. Two long-term studies show that a particular curcumin-phosphatidylcholine complex (Meriva) improves arthritis symptoms and reduces blood levels of inflammatory chemicals.
Another curry spice, ginger (Zingiber officinale), decreases pain and inflammation. In one study, 250 mg of a ginger extract, taken four times a day, diminished pain from knee osteoarthritis, but only after three months of continuous use. A few studies also suggest that boswellia (Boswellia serrata), also called Indian frankincense, improves knee arthritis. Side effects may include gastrointestinal upset.
Herbs from other continents have also been studied. South African native devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) has the support of tradition and several studies for decreasing arthritis symptoms. Two species of cat’s claw, a spiky vine from South America, also shows arthritic healing promise. Uncaria guianensis has been shown to relieve knee pain during activity (but not at rest) in people with osteoarthritis; U. tomentosa reduces rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, particularly when used as a complement to conventional medical treatment.
Closer to home, willow (Salix spp.) has long been used to reduce pain and inflammation. The bark contains salicin, which our bodies can turn into salicylic acid, which laboratories can turn into acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin). Preliminary research shows that concentrated extracts (providing 240 mg of salicin a day) offer moderate relief in osteoarthritis. Interestingly, a single aspirin tablet contains 325 mg, suggesting a combination of willow’s constituents provide relief.
Cayenne (Capsicum annuum) contains capsaicin, which inhibits inflammation and interferes with pain transmission. Topical capsaicin-containing cream has been shown to decrease osteoarthritis pain. However, some people can’t tolerate the burning sensation. Some commercial products also contain menthol, an analgesic ingredient from mint. Avoid contact with your eyes, nose or other sensitive mucous membranes. Wash your hands well after applying.
Stinging nettle’s (Urtica dioica) sting has an upside—application of the fresh leaf relieves hand arthritis. Eating stewed nettles can improve arthritis symptoms. Try using nettle leaves in place of other dark leafy greens. Wear gloves while harvesting. Once the leaves are dried or cooked, they no longer sting.
Tip: In addition to supplements, you can incorporate extra ginger into your diet by sipping delicious ginger tea, as seen in the Image Gallery. Serve warm or chilled.
Linda B. White, M.D., teaches herbal medicine classes in the Integrative Therapeutic Practices Program at Metropolitan State College of Denver.