Mother Earth Living

Natural Herbs For Arthritis

Get expert advice on which herbs for arthritis are safe and effective. Cayenne, devil’s claw, yucca and more may ease arthritic pain and stiffness.
By Steven Foster
October/November 2002
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Arthritis can make any task such as gardening more difficult. And unfortunately, arthritis is far more complicated than simple inflammation of the joints. There are about 100 different types of arthritis, with osteoarthritis being the most common form.
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Is there an effective herbal treatment for arthritis? Some people have found relief from herbal therapies, but what may work for one person may not work for someone else.

Arthritis is far more complicated than simple inflammation of the joints. There are about 100 different types of arthritis, and at least that many herbs have been used over the centuries to treat the condition. In fact, plants can be potent partners in fighting inflammation, and more animal studies have been conducted on the anti-inflammatory activity of medicinal plants than any other research category.

With all the reputed herbs for arthritis, you might have to experiment to find the treatment that works best for you. But caution is in order—this sort of experimentation has led some arthritis sufferers to try questionable practices, such as ingesting highly toxic pokeweed berries, encouraging live bees to sting the affected area, or flailing inflamed joints with stinging nettles.

Herbs such as cayenne, devil’s claw, and yucca are safer alternative treatments for arthritis. Each of these herbs has demonstrated some effectiveness in treating arthritis by reducing inflammation, relieving pain, or increasing joint movement. If you choose any or all of these herbs, however, please do so only under the supervision of a qualified medical practitioner.

Capsaicin for Pain

One herb that has found its place in conventional management of pain associated with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis is cayenne (Capsicum annuum), or more specifically, the pungent component in cayenne, capsaicin. Both over-the-counter and prescription ointments and creams containing capsaicin are prescribed by physicians and can be found at your local pharmacy.

The concentration of capsaicin in topical preparations is typically 0.025 to 0.075 percent. A single dose of capsaicin causes minor pain, producing a burning sensation on the skin, along with inflammation and hypersensitivity. However, repeated, long-term application leads to desensitization, numbing of pain, and some reduction in inflammation.

How does capsaicin both cause and reduce pain? The theory is that capsaicin disrupts substance P, a protein that helps transmit pain from nerve cells to the brain. When you first apply capsaicin, substance P is released from nerves in the skin, so you may feel some initial burn. But with repeated treatments, nerve endings stop replenishing their substance P supplies, resulting in fewer pain signals being sent to the brain.

A word to the wise: These products do not produce instant relief. They must be continuously applied for two to four weeks before you will see any results. Consult your physician or pharmacist before using capsaicin-containing products about the best dosage and product form to use, since a variety of concentrations is available.

Devil’s Claw for Inflammation

Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens), also known as grapple plant, is a shrubby vine native to southwest Africa. In various African cultures, a tea of the tubers was prized as a treatment to relieve rheumatic and arthritic pain. Based on traditional use in South Africa, preparations of the tubers were introduced into European phytomedicine in the early 1950s as an anti-inflammatory for rheumatism and arthritis.

Both animal and human studies have confirmed the anti-inflammatory activity of devil’s claw. Yet the clinical trials have presented mixed results on the herb’s effectiveness in humans for inflammatory pain conditions. Products are standardized to harpagoside, which is thought to be the active component. However, studies have shown that other compounds are also involved in the herb’s pain- relieving qualities.

Although the jury is still out on the ultimate utility of devil’s claw treatments for arthritis, some arthritis sufferers have reported significant relief for the past three decades. In Germany, devil’s claw is approved for supportive treatment of inflammatory joint conditions as well as for treatment of loss of appetite and indigestion. So if your arthritis is accompanied by either of these symptoms, devil’s claw may do double duty. A typical dosage would be up to six 400 to 500 mg capsules a day or 30 drops of tincture, three times a day.

Yucca for Arthritis?

Ask any knowledgeable clerk in a health food store what herbs people use for arthritis and, inevitably, yucca root will be among the answers.

In commercial herbal products, yucca root may come from Yucca schidigera, Y. brevifolia, Y. glauca, and other species, all from warm regions of North America. There are thirty yucca species in all.

In Western herbal traditions, yucca root was first valued in the treatment of diabetes, arthritis, and digestive disorders. Controversial clinical studies published in 1975 and 1978 in the Journal of Applied Nutrition reported that yucca extract reduced pain, swelling, and stiffness in half of 150 arthritis patients. A follow-up clinical study involving 212 patients also showed a reduction in blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Unfortunately, the studies were deemed poorly controlled (the plant species and method of extract preparation were not specified), and the results were inconsistent. Researchers apparently did not distinguish between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. Individual dosage and length of treatment were different (from one week to fifteen months), yet the results were evaluated together.

Nevertheless, while inconclusive, the studies have led to widespread use of yucca preparations for anti-inflammatory benefits for arthritic conditions. A typical dose is up to four 490 mg capsules a day. Otherwise, follow the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Partners for Your Herbs: Other Arthritis Strategies

Herbs are not the only way to go when treating arthritis. The best-known dietary supplements for arthritis include either glucosamine sulfate, chondroitin sulfate, or both.

These products have primarily been touted to relieve symptoms of osteoarthritis, and while they are not yet proven remedies, there is a significant amount of both scientific and anecdotal evidence that they work. Positive results have been reported in a small number of clinical trials.

Although the body produces glucosamine sulfate, which is a component of cartilage structure, commercial products contain an artificially produced compound, a synthesized salt of glucosamine. In theory, glucosamine sulfate may help stimulate the manufacture of cartilage necessary for proper joint function, as well as stimulate joint repair, therefore preventing the progression of osteoarthritis.

Chondroitin sulfates are produced in small amounts in our bodies. They help attract and maintain fluids in joint cartilage. In some clinical studies, chondroitin has relieved osteoarthritis pain. But not all researchers and health-care practitioners agree that oral forms of chondroitin are effective, partly because the molecule itself may be too large for the body to absorb.

Given the controversy, discuss these and other arthritis treatments with your health-care practitioner to better determine which treatments will work for you.


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