More than 50 million American adults suffer from doctor-diagnosed arthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation, and arthritis is the nation’s No. 1 cause of disability. Many people choose to manage pain with prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) pharmaceutical pain relievers. But, although these pharmaceuticals may temporarily relieve some of the pain of arthritis, they can also cause side effects, some of them serious, including potential stomach irritation,heart problems, and liver and kidney damage. Herbal and other natural medicines can be just as effective, and often have fewer side effects, although we should treat herbal medicines with the same level of seriousness as pharmaceuticals (and some do have potential side effects, which we spell out later in this article).
If you or someone you love suffers from the pain of arthritis in one of its many forms, consider the effective herbal treatment options here.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
Ginger is useful for more than just gingersnaps and pumpkin pie. A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine compared ginger extract with the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) diclofenac. Some participants received a ginger extract while others received diclofenac. Both groups had similar reductions in pain, but the group taking the ginger extract had fewer gastrointestinal complaints than the drug group.
In another study published in the journal Arthritis, scientists discovered that not only was ginger effective for both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, it was just as effective as the anti-inflammatory drug known as betamethasone, and superior to ibuprofen. Ibuprofen did not work to reduce levels of cytokines, while ginger was highly effective in this capacity. Cytokines are compounds that are initially involved in immune reactions in the body but quickly become detrimental to healthy cells and tissues, so reducing them is a valuable strategy in addressing arthritis symptoms and joint damage.
To get a helpful dose of this herb, thinly slice a two-inch piece of fresh ginger and add to a medium pot filled with one quart of water. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce the heat to simmer for 45 minutes to an hour. Add a small amount of stevia or a touch of honey to sweeten to taste, and drink throughout the day. You can also add ginger to soups, stews and curries. Although eating ginger is quite helpful, sometimes you may need the faster, stronger relief that ginger capsules or tincture (alcohol extract) can provide. Take four 550 mg capsules at once, three times daily until you begin to experience a decrease in pain, then reduce your dose to three capsules twice daily. Alternatively, you can take a dropperful of tincture three times daily to start experiencing pain relief. If you have bouts of pain, you can return to the higher dose for a few days and then drop back down to the lower maintenance dose. Of course, consult a naturally minded physician prior to use.
Curcumin, the main therapeutic constituent of the spice turmeric, has a proven track record of decreasing symptoms of arthritis as well as muscle pain, making it helpful for osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is the yellowish spice commonly used in Indian cooking. Its main therapeutic ingredient, curcumin, suppresses pain through a similar mechanism as common OTC drugs such as COX-1 and COX-2 inhibitors, with few side effects, although it can cause stomach upset.
In one study comparing the anti-inflammatory effects of curcumin to the drugs ibuprofen and aspirin, researchers found curcumin to be more effective than either drug at reducing inflammation.
Other research shows that curcumin is more effective than acetaminophen (Tylenol). The study, reported in the Journal of Pain Research, found that curcumin demonstrated potent pain-relieving effects, even greater than 1,000 mg of acetaminophen.
Curcumin is one of the few standardized extracts that I recommend (usually I prefer the whole herb). Choose a standardized extract of 1,000 to 1,500 mg of curcumin per day, and take it with meals in divided doses of 500 mg at a time. Although it is possible to use whole turmeric rather than curcumin extract, you will have difficulty obtaining sufficient amounts of curcumin to repair muscle and joint inflammation linked to arthritis. If you prefer to take it as a food, you can take up to four tablespoons of turmeric daily mixed with water. You may want to add a dash of the natural sweetener stevia to make this beverage more palatable.
Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens)
This plant, which grows in Africa, Namibia in particular, garners its name from its large, claw-like fruit. An anti-inflammatory and anti-pain herb, devil’s claw works quickly to relieve pain and inflammation. It can be taken as an herbal tea; in capsules or tablets; or as an ointment to rub on painful areas.
Dozens of studies cite its effectiveness against arthritis pain, particularly osteoarthritis pain. Although devil’s claw contains many active compounds, including harpagide, harpagoside, kaempferol, luteolin and oleanolic acid, among others, it is best to take capsules or a tincture made from the whole plant, rather than any of these specific compounds on their own. Research in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that the effectiveness drops when extracts of specific compounds found in devil’s claw are used. Devil’s claw, like most herbs (curcumin is arguably the exception), proves the adage that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, a devil’s claw supplement or tincture is superior to a harpagoside supplement. Whole-plant compounds work synergistically and also generally have fewer side effects than individual ingredients.
A typical dose of devil’s claw for an arthritis sufferer is 2,500 mg daily, in divided doses. Devil’s claw may increase the effects of medications used to reduce blood clotting, such as warfarin, so be sure to work with a knowledgeable doctor before taking these medications together. Other medications that may interact with devil’s claw include ibuprofen, diclofenac, meloxicam, piroxicam, celecoxib, amitriptyline, glipizide and losartan, so check with your doctor or pharmacist if you’re taking any of these drugs. Avoid using devil’s claw if you are pregnant or have gallstones or an ulcer.
Michelle Schoffro Cook is an international best-selling and 20-time published book author whose works include Arthritis-Proof Your Life and Be Your Own Herbalist. Learn more at Dr. Michelle's Blog.