Herbal Remedies for Joint Pain

Try these natural remedies, including yucca, meadowsweet and celery seed, for arthritis pain relief.

By Dawn Combs

November/December 2016

Herbs in Jars

Herbs such as parsley, celery seed and yucca can help with inflammatory and arthritic pain.

Photo by Fotolia

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In 2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that nearly a quarter of Americans suffer from some form of arthritis, or rheumatic disease, making it the most common cause of disability among adults in our country. Government agencies describe more than 100 types of rheumatic illness as “arthritis,” including everything from fibromyalgia and lupus to rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. These illnesses together draw $128 billion in medical care and lost wages from American pocketbooks each year.

All About Arthritis 

Arthritic ailments involve our bodies attacking their own supportive structures, the tissues that hold us together and keep us upright. Modern treatments highlight our misunderstanding of the issue. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) are the most commonly used treatment in the U.S., yet these pharmaceuticals only temporarily reduce inflammation and pain symptoms, rather than tracing the problem to its source and fixing it. So we wind up with a large portion of the population taking medication to mask pain while inflammation continues. 

But joint pain, inflammation, stiffness and swelling don’t have to be life sentences. There’s a path through the problem if we start at the source, although there isn’t a magic bullet. If we assume that the problem with our joints must be musculoskeletal and address only that system, we ignore the bodily systems upstream and downstream from the issue. The real win comes from looking at the problem holistically. 

Many plants are associated with the treatment of arthritis. What follows aren’t perhaps the most popular remedies, but they illustrate the community approach that is required with natural treatment. There isn’t simply “one herb for that” in relation to our connective tissues. Once you determine your choice of herbs, you may use some in food and others in tea, tinctures or capsules. You may choose to seek an herbalist to formulate something easy to use, or you may expand your garden and try growing your own medicine. These plants will get you started, but also keep in mind lifestyle habits that contribute to inflammation: Do you need to move more, eat better, drink more water? The answers are as individual as the ways rheumatic disease can attack the body. Be sure to find your own path. Always work with a medical professional to understand your particular issue. 

The Four-Pronged Approach

A wide variety of plants is associated with treating joint disease and it can feel overwhelming, so let me simplify how we can most easily categorize them. The most obvious place to start is in addressing the No. 1 problem associated with joint pain: inflammation. Second, while we don’t want to mask pain, we should recognize pain’s impact on quality of life and minimize it naturally. Third, it is important to address the body’s main filter, the liver. The liver is responsible for keeping our blood “clean,” so to speak. When it is under stress or “clogged,” we suffer from heightened pain and inflammation. Finally, we want to support the kidneys with plants known as diuretics, which aid the movement of water and waste through the body and out through the kidneys. You may be curious how diuretics relate to joint pain. This action is necessary to move crystalline waste away from joints. Let’s look at the herbal options that can address these four components of arthritic pain.  

#1 Inflamation

The main culprit in any type of joint pain is inflammation. Inflammation can be brought on by food allergies; a digestive system that isn’t breaking down proteins properly; or failures in other bodily systems that negatively impact healthy inflammatory processes.

Yucca (Yucca schidigera

Y. schidigera is native to the desert areas of Arizona, California and Nevada. It is one of the plants whose value we learned from American Indians, who used it both medicinally and ceremonially. Yucca root is well-known as an anti-inflammatory remedy for arthritic conditions. Studies support the anti-inflammatory properties of the plant’s active ingredients, steroidal saponins. They also seem to suggest that these saponins have activity against protozoa in the gut; these unicellular organisms can contribute to joint inflammation when they become overpopulated. Yucca is a powerful remedy that should be used in small amounts. It is best used as a small portion of a tincture formulation that includes a combination of other anti-inflammatory plants. 

Celery seed (Apium graveolens)

Celery seed is so well-known as an anti-inflammatory there’s a U.S. patent on using its extract to treat pain and inflammation. The wild variety is best known for its anti-inflammatory properties. The plant contains high levels of sodium along with phenols and flavonoids. Its main action with respect to joint issues is as a diuretic, but it’s a bit more specialized than that. It has a long history of breaking up areas of calcium and uric acid concentration. This makes celery seed a specific (an herbalism term that means the plant is almost universally recommended for the condition) in the case of bone spurs or gout. Herbalist Matthew Wood sums up its action in his book The Earthwise Herbal: “Like many salty emollients, it penetrates into calcified or hard deposits, breaks them up, brings material back into the bloodstream and out through the kidneys, while increasing the flow of water through cartilage and joint, which is essential for their cleansing and feeding.” 
Be aware that celery is one of the most allergenic plants, next to nuts, and should also not be used in large amounts by 
pregnant women. It doesn’t carry any other warnings, but if you find you 
experience shortness of breath or swelling of the face when you eat celery, it’s best to avoid celery seed.

#2 Pain

Most mainstream  arthritis-relief products aim to relieve joint pain. While it’s important to discover and treat the underlying causes of pain, we never want to ignore the harm to quality of life that pain and lack of mobility can cause. These herbs can effectively manage the pain component as part of our four-pronged approach to arthritis management.  

Cayenne (Capsicum annum)

In the case of joint pain, cayenne is used topically. It is classified as a rubifacient, which means its action comes through irritation. It may be hard to believe heavy inflammation could be remedied by aggravation, but that is just what occurs. Cayenne irritates the skin, stimulating blood circulation to the area below, relieving congestion and swelling and moving out any crystalline substances that may have lodged in the joints. The main activator in the plant is capsaicin, which tends to interrupt the transmission of substance P across the nerve endings, effectively cutting off the sensation of pain. Studies show that if you plan to use a capsaicin oil, salve or cream, you will be most successful applying it four times a day for three to four weeks.

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

This beautiful member of the rose family contains salicylates, also found in aspirin and other over-the-counter pain relievers. The combination of compounds within the plant render this a gentle alternative to aspirin, which can be irritating. Meadowsweet is a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory, but it is best at carrying away uric acid and other waste that can collect around sore joints. The German Commission E suggests the herb be used internally in the amount of 4 to 5 grams, divided into three doses throughout the day. This may be easiest as a tincture, but the plant is pleasant in a tea, as well. 

#3 Liver

Alteratives support the liver in filtering debris before it circulates in our bodies. When the liver is assisted in its job, our bodies must contend with less inflammation and we can prevent new damage, leaving room to calm the irritation the has already occurred.

Nettle (Urtica dioica)

An old tradition tells arthritis sufferers to smack an arthritic joint with fresh nettle to allow the stinging to increase blood flow, relieve pain, and carry away waste and inflammation. This may be worth knowing depending on your pain tolerance, but most people avoid even bumping into this stinging plant and prefer to use the leaves internally. Nettles are high in protein. While growing, its chemical makeup allows the plant to process protein in the surrounding soil. In the human body, the same process occurs. In the case of joint issues, this is a benefit, as waste proteins that build up in our joints, such as uric acid in the case of gout, can cause pain and inflammation. Nettle has a long history of escorting this particular class of waste to the door by way of the kidneys. Steaming or drying nettle deactivates its stinging and can make it a delicious and nutritious part of the diet as food (eat it like any other greens) or tea.

Burdock (Arctium lappa

The German Commission E Monographs list burdock as a well-known, accepted remedy for arthritis and gout. Its benefits lie in what this delicious root can do for our livers. It is one of our most valuable alteratives, supporting the health of the liver, particularly its ability to filter irritants out of the blood. Burdock root may be eaten as a root vegetable (find it under the name gobo root in groceries) or in any form of medicinal herbal preparation.

#4 Kidneys

A diuretic is included in most formulas to naturally treat arthritis. This is because diuretics encourage the liquid portion of our bodies to move more freely, removing the logjam of waste products that can otherwise build up around our joints. 

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Dandelion is a remarkably healing plant, and it’s a good choice to add to the diet and healing formulas for anyone with joint issues. Dandelion is a digestive; an alterative (a plant that contributes to improving the condition of the blood); and a diuretic. Most herbal formulas for joint issues contain a digestive aid. Proper digestion helps prevent the cascade of problems undigested proteins cause in our musculoskeletal system by building up around joints, causing pain and inflammation. Dandelion’s sesquiterpene lactones are known to be anti-inflammatory, but it also contains phenylpropanoids, which have the ability to support balance in the body’s inflammatory response. Dandelion leaves or roots excel as a food, or in a tea, tincture or capsule.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)

Parsley and celery are related. Some of what we know about the benefits of celery applies to parsley. It is a diuretic and is high in volatile oils and minerals (namely sodium), and is a great source of vitamin C. It is especially applicable to joint issues because it’s a tonic for the thyroid and adrenal glands, and it serves to support a healthy inflammatory response from a hormonal level. All parts of parsley have been used internally, but presently the root and the leaf are most common.

5 Drug Free Remedies, Backed by Science

1. Walking: Few therapies can match walking for reducing pain and stiffness, building muscles around the joints and improving flexibility. Start as slowly  as you need to, and work up to 30  minutes a day.

2. Green Tea: Studies show a potent antioxidant in green tea called epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) blocks the production of molecules that cause joint damage in people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). To reap the health benefits, drink two or three cups of green tea a day, researchers suggest.

3. Ice Massage: Simply rubbing an ice cube or a paper cup of frozen water in small circles over a painful area reduces swelling, slows pain signals and inhibits the production of inflammatory chemicals. The American College of Rheumatology recommends doing it for five to 10 minutes several times a day.

4. Probiotics: In studies, certain strains of probiotic bacteria significantly reduced pain and disability in people with RA. Though research is still preliminary, try eating yogurt every day for two or three months to see if it’s effective for you.

5. Fish: The omega-3 fatty acids in some fish reduce inflammation by halting the production of pro-inflammatory enzymes — and they can ease pain, too. The best sources include salmon, sardines, herring and tuna. Eat several servings per week.