Warming, stimulating ginger has been used for more than 2,500 years in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese medicine for the treatment of musculoskeletal complaints, including osteoarthritis. While research has documented ginger’s effectiveness against nausea and vomiting, few studies have investigated its reputation for relieving symptoms of arthritis. Now, a placebo-controlled clinical trial conducted in the United States offers preliminary scientific support for this important traditional use of ginger.
The study, which involved 261 people with moderate-to-severe pain due to osteoarthritis of the knee, showed that ginger was significantly more effective than a placebo in relieving arthritis pain. The concentrated ginger extract used in this study was made from a combination of two plants in the ginger family, Zingiber officinale (common ginger) and Alpinia galanga (galangal, a related Southeast Asian plant used both as a spice and in traditional medicine).
For the six-week study, the participants were randomly divided into two equal groups and underwent a one-week “washout” period during which they took no arthritis medications. Next, the people in the ginger group took two 255-mg ginger extract tablets twice daily, while those in the placebo group received identical-looking tablets containing coconut oil. All study participants were permitted to use acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) as “rescue” pain relief if needed, up to a maximum of 4 g daily.
After six weeks of treatment, significantly more of the people taking ginger experienced a reduction in knee pain upon standing, the main measurement of effectiveness used in the study. People taking ginger also had greater improvements in stiffness and in pain after walking fifty feet. However, the ginger group had a higher rate of mild gastrointestinal side effects than the placebo group. The researchers concluded that ginger was moderately effective in relieving symptoms of osteoarthritis in the knee, with a “good safety profile.”
Some scientists theorize that ginger may share some properties with the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) commonly used to treat symptoms of arthritis. Both ginger and NSAIDs inhibit the activity of prostaglandins, naturally occurring substances that play an important role in pain, inflammation, fever, and many other body functions. However, unlike NSAIDs, ginger appears to block only the action of certain prostaglandins, leaving levels of beneficial prostaglandins unaffected.
Altman R. D. and K. C. Marcussen. “Effects of a ginger extract on knee pain in patients with osteoarthritis.” Arthritis and Rheumatism 2001, 44(11): 2531–2538.
Evelyn Leigh is a writer, editor and herbalist who lives to garden in Boulder, Colorado. She is the co-author of the Herb Research Foundation’s science-based book, The Encyclopedia of Popular Herbs (Prima Publishing, 2000).