I am an 87-year-old male. X-rays show I have osteoarthritis in my back, hips and knees. I do not have any pain but am so stiff I have trouble walking. Are there any herbs that would help the stiffness? I exercise one hour daily about five days per week but still have trouble walking.
—H.C., Williamstown, Kentucky
Stansbury responds: Osteoarthritis, as you probably know, involves a wear-and-tear sort of degeneration of the bony aspects of joints, which itself can create pain. Mechanical and inflammatory irritation of the surrounding tissues also can accompany and contribute to the pain. While your exercise routine sounds impressive, please be certain you’re not overdoing it and contributing to the wear-and-tear and painful inflammatory processes.
Perhaps you have heard of, or are already taking, glucosamine and chondroitin, animal-derived substances that help rebuild bony and connective tissues. About 50 percent of people taking these products experience relief from osteoarthritic symptoms after taking them for several months.
Herbal choices include botanicals thought to rebuild connective tissue, such as nettles (Urtica dioica), horsetail (Equisetum arvense), gotu kola (Centella asiatica) and oatstraw (Avena sativa). These herbs also need to be taken for many months, as they relieve pain by nourishing and helping improve the tissue abnormalities causing the pain; they’re not pain relievers themselves. Research also is currently investigating nutrients such as boron, phosphorus, fluoride and others for rebuilding degenerated bony tissues.
Options that can more quickly relieve pain and stiffness are perhaps more palliative but certainly can be combined with the above remedies. Herbs that may help reduce inflammation and allay your stiffness include black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens), bromelain, boswellia (Boswellia serrata) and the salicylate-containing herbs — white willow (Salix spp.) and meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria).
Another option to consider is topical therapies — cayenne or capsicum ointments, wintergreen and other analgesic balms and sports rubs, plus Epsom salt soaks. Epsom salts have anti-inflammatory and restorative effects for the joints, especially when used frequently for many weeks, such as one to two times daily for six weeks.
Willard responds: You’re not the only one — several of my patients have a more difficult time with stiffness than they do with pain. Mild exercise is the first thing I find that helps. Because you already exercise, stretching might be the missing link in your program. Even though there is stiffness, this part is important. Exercise and stretching should be started out slowly, and expanded gently over a few months.
Sometimes the most effective step is to simply lubricate the joints; just as mechanical joints need lubrication, so do the joints of the body. This can be achieved by orally consuming certain oils. I find that cod liver oil (1 tablespoon twice daily) is best for this. Other oils, such as black currant, borage, hemp or evening primrose, also work (take 2,000 mg twice daily).
The herbal remedy I often put together for patients is a tincture formula with 4 parts devil’s claw, 3 parts yucca (Yucca spp.), 2 parts chaparral (Larrea tridentata) and 2 parts red clover blossoms (Trifolium pratense). My suggested dose is 30 drops three times daily. Devil’s claw and yucca both have saponin-type chemicals, which act similarly to cortisone. They have been shown to markedly reduce inflammation and also are reported to dissolve calcium deposits. Red clover and chaparral are excellent alteratives, cleansing the system of excess toxicity and acidity, which is often an underlying cause of arthritis-related problems.
I often also add glucosamine sulfate (1,000 mg twice daily) and MSM (1,000 mg twice daily) to the program. These help reduce inflammation, ease stiffness and improve mobility.
Although there has been a bit of controversy lately over the safety of kava (Piper methysticum), I still find it the best herb for relieving stiffness. This can be taken in capsules (200 to 400 mg twice daily); or in tincture form (30 drops twice daily). Kava supports the flexibility of the muscles and joints, and I have not seen any negative side effects of it in my practice. However, to be on the safe side, don’t use kava if you have liver disease.
Terry Willard is a clinical herbalist, president of the Canadian Association of Herbal Practitioners and founder of the Wild Rose College of Natural Healing in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is the author of eight books and a CD-ROM, Interactive Herbal.
Jill Stansbury has been a naturopathic physician for more than 10 years, with a private practice in Battleground, Washington. She is the chair of the Botanical Medicine Department at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon, and the author of many books including Herbs for Health and Healing (Publication International, 1997).