Herbal Treatments for Osteoarthritis Pain Relief

The best herbs for relief from osteoarthritis symptoms


| November/December 1998



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The life expectancy of the average American has nearly doubled during this century, from forty-seven years in the early 1900s to seventy-six years today. The potential of a longer life span is a positive development, but along with extra years comes the risk of age-­related diseases—including osteoarthritis, which will affect 59.4 million Americans by the year 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, a general term for more than 100 conditions and derived from the Greek words arthron, meaning joints, and itis, meaning inflammation. Other common types of this disease are rheumatoid arthritis, a widespread inflammation of the joints, and gout, a condition in which crystals develop in the joints. Osteoarthritis affects weight-bearing joints in the hips, knees, feet, and other parts of the body, and also commonly appears in the joints of the fingers and spine. It occurs when cartilage, the cushion between bones, breaks down. Without this protective padding, bones rub each other, resulting in pain, tenderness, swelling, stiffness, and, sometimes, deformity.

Osteoarthritis isn’t a new disease. Researchers have found evidence of it in dinosaurs—a Platycarpus skeleton at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum in Lawrence exhibits the same signs of osteoarthritis that physicians observe in humans today—and in the fossilized bones of humans living during the Ice Age. This condition afflicts the old more than the young and tends to develop at an earlier age in men than women. But for people older than age forty-five, it’s ten times more common in women than men, a disparity that some medical experts attribute to menopause; estrogen may play a role. Many in the medical community also believe that heredity and obesity contribute to the risk of developing the condition.

Symptoms of osteoarthritis are usually mild at first and can include morning stiffness that disappears quickly. As the disease advances, pain becomes apparent when an affected joint moves; the pain may become worse during periods of activity and abate while at rest. For some, osteoarthritis never gets beyond this point. For others, symptoms gradually worsen and may result in the need to limit daily activities such as walking, climbing stairs, and typing.

Herbal aid

Nooshin K. Darvish, a naturopathic doctor in Seattle and a Bastyr University clinical faculty member, says the bulk of her arthritis patients are postmenopausal women age fifty-five and older who have osteoarthritis of the spine, knees and ankles. Some of her patients are younger and have developed osteoarthritis as a result of injury to the knee or ankle.

Darvish says that two herbs—devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) and boswellia (Boswellia serrata)—are particularly helpful in decreasing inflammation and managing the pain associated with osteoarthritis.

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