First of all, before we look at the benefits of using devil’s claw as a natural remedy for osteoarthritis, let’s answer a basic question: what is arthritis – specifically osteoarthritis?
Arthritis is a joint disorder characterized by inflammation usually accompanied with pain, swelling and stiffness. Osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout are the most common forms of arthritis. Osteoarthritis is often referred to as degenerative joint disease.
With approximately 27 million individuals diagnosed with osteoarthritis (50% of the US population will experience some form of it in their lifetime), it is the most common form of arthritis in the United States. Although often referred to as the “wear and tear” arthritis, the cause of this particular form of arthritis is unknown. It most commonly occurs in the hips, knees, spine and hands, although it should be noted that it can occur in any joint.
Normally, the bones in a joint are cushioned by and separated by cartilage. In osteoarthritis, it is common for this cartilage to thin allowing the end of the bones to become exposed and rub against each other. Not only does this cause damage to the bones, it also causes swelling and a decreased range of motion of the joint. It is not uncommon for bone spurs to develop in the joint which also cause pain when extending or bending the joint.
Osteoarthritis is more common among women than men. The most common symptom of osteoarthritis is pain – in and/or around the affected joint. Other symptoms could include tenderness and/or stiffness, loss of flexibility and a grating feeling and/or sound in the joint upon movement.
Although the causes of osteoarthritis is still unknown, the risk factors include:
- Getting older. It takes time for that “wear and tear” to take place.
- Genetics. If someone in your family has had osteoarthritis, you are at a greater risk of developing it.
- Previous injury to a joint.
- Repeatedly overusing a joint.
Natural Remedies for Arthritis
Since arthritis affects all aspects of a person’s life, everyone suffering with it is continually searching for ways to treat this debilitating condition. Current pharmacological treatments focus on improving the quality of life of the individual with osteoarthritis by reducing pain and working to increase the mobility of the affected joint. These pharmacological treatments are often inadequate and contain significant side effects. Therefore, many individuals with osteoarthritis are looking to alternative medicine for arthritis treatment such as nutritional and herbal supplements, exercise routines, and acupuncture.
The most common natural treatment for arthritis includes the use of glucosamine, acupuncture, and/or Devil’s Claw.
Devil’s claw, Harpagophytum procumbens, native to southern Africa has been used in the treatment of arthritis and other illnesses for thousands of years. Its botanical name, Harpagophytum, means “hook plant” and is derived from the small wicked hooks that are a part of the plant’s fruit casing.
Other names for devil’s claw include: devil’s claw root, grapple plant, wood spider, Garra del Diablo, Harpagophyti Radix, Harpagophytum, Harpagophytum procumbens, Harpagophytum zeyheri, Uncaria procumbens
Devil’s claw can be used to reduce inflammation and swelling. It is believed to be as effective as the anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx in reducing the pain of arthritis. Its active ingredients, found in its secondary root, are believed to be iridoid glycosides (harpagosides). In a study published in the journal Rheumatology, 60 mg of harpagosides administered through devil’s claw extract was compared to 12.5 mg a day of Vioxx. The two regimens were compared for 6 weeks with 79 patients who were suffering from extreme and worsening lower back pain. Vioxx has since been taken off the market making devil’s claw a possible alternative for conditions that were effectively treated with Vioxx.
It appears that devil’s claw works in the same way as Cox-2 anti-inflammatory drugs like Celebrex. It also has shown to produce changes in leukotrienes which is associated with inflammation. More studies are needed, however, to fully substantiate devil’s claw as being effective in the treatment of arthritis.
In Africa, devil’s claw has also been used for fever, skin conditions, and ailments of the stomach, pancreas, gallbladder and kidneys. Since the early 1900’s when devil’s claw was brought to Europe, it has been used to improve digestion.
Because of its ability to reduce inflammation and pain, devil’s claw is now used worldwide to treat numerous conditions including back pain, neck pain, tendinitis, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. In a study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology 74% of rheumatism in Germany was treated with devil’s claw in 2001.
In many areas of the world today it is also used to treat atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), gout, myalgia (muscle pain), chest pain, migraine headaches, allergic reactions, gastrointestinal difficulties (including loss of appetite), heartburn and kidney and bladder disease. It has been used to treat female concerns such as menstrual problems and difficulties in childbirth. Devil’s claw has also been used topically to treat skin injuries and skin conditions.
Research and Devil’s Claw
Evidence gained through research and studies is available proving the benefit of using devil’s claw for treatment of inflammation and pain.
- As mentioned previously, a study published in the journal Rheumatology comparing devil’s claw and the anti-inflammatory Vioxx proved to be effective in reducing the pain of patients with severe lower back pain.
- Another study which was published in the journal Joint Bone Spine showed very promising results. In this study, 122 patients with osteoarthritis of the knee and hip were used to compare 100 mg of the European osteoarthritis drug diacerhein with 2610 mg of powdered devil’s claw which contains approximately 60 mg per day of harpagosides. After a span of 4 months, the devil’s claw proved to be as effective as the diacerhein at improving joint mobility and relieving pain. These results came into question later when a 3-year study comparing diacerhein with a placebo found the diacerhein to be ineffective at reducing osteoarthritis symptoms.
- Devil’s claw was used to treat slight to moderate neck, back and shoulder muscle tension and pain in a 4-week German study. Sixty-three individuals took part in this study – 31 of them taking 480 mg twice a day while the 32 others were given a placebo. The results of this study: there was significant pain reduction in the group taking the devil’s claw compared to the group who had taken the placebo.
- A 4-week study documented in a European Journal of Anaesthesiology also showed promise. In this study, 197 individuals with moderate to severe back pain were given 50-100 mg harpagosides or a placebo. The devil’s claw appeared to reduce more pain than the placebo.
Although devil’s claw comes in capsule, tincture and tea form, it is typically taken as a capsule when treating inflammation and pain.
Based on studies and scientific research at least 50 mg of harpagosides should be taken per day. Specific studies have shown devil’s claw to be beneficial when doses between 50-100 mg of harpagosides were administered daily to treat osteoarthritis and/or lower back pain.
Precautions when using Devil’s Claw to Treat Arthritis
- Individuals with gastric or duodenal ulcers should avoid the use of devil’s claw.
- Since devil’s claw has been shown to increase bile production in some individuals, it can pose a big problem for individuals with gall bladder issues and gallstones. These individuals should avoid devil’s claw.
- Because devil’s claw is thought to cause uterine contractions, women who are pregnant or think they may be pregnant should avoid its use. It is unknown whether devil’s claw is safe for a developing fetus, therefore it should be avoided.
- It is also advised to avoid its use while breast-feeding because there is not enough known to prove its safety for the infant when breast-feeding.
- Individuals with gallstones should always consult a doctor before taking devil’s claw.
- Since devil’s claw has the ability to lower blood sugar levels, individuals having issues with blood sugar such as someone with diabetes or someone taking a medication that affects their blood sugar should take devil’s claw only under the supervision of a qualified healthcare practitioner.
- It should be noted that in animal studies, small changes in blood glucose, heart rhythm and blood pressure were noted in some subjects. One animal study showed that devil’s claw boosted the action of GABA in the brain and depressed the central nervous system. No studies have been done to test these effects on humans.
- Since devil’s claw has been shown to affect heart rate, heartbeat and blood pressure, an individual dealing with heart problems, or high or low blood pressure should talk to their healthcare professional before beginning a regimen of devil’s claw.
- Since devil’s claw has been shown to increase the production of stomach acids, individuals dealing with peptic ulcer disease should avoid the use of devil’s claw.
Possible Side Effects of Devil’s Claw
Devil’s claw is thought to be safe for most adults when taken orally at appropriate doses for up to a year.
- The most common side effect is diarrhea. In one study, approximately 8% of individuals experienced diarrhea.
- In some of the studies a few individuals have reported headaches, ringing in the ears, stomach upset/nausea/vomiting, abdominal pain and a feeling of fullness or loss of appetite.
- Some individuals taking devil’s claw have experienced allergic reactions. If allergic actions such as hives, itching or difficulty breathing occur, medical help should be sought immediately.
- Some individuals can experience menstrual problems or changes in blood pressure.
Possible Drug Interactions of Devil’s Claw
There are no known interactions between devil’s claw and food, herbs or supplements. However, there are known issues with pharmacological treatments.
As new drug interactions are often discovered, it is always advised that an individual speak with their physician or pharmacist about any alternative therapies, such as devil’s claw, that are being pursued to ensure that no drug interactions occur. Current known drug interactions with devil’s claw include but are not limited to:
- Anticoagulants such as Warfarin or Coumadin
- Metformin – one animal study caused lowered blood glucose in fasted normal and diabetic animals. Because of this, devil’s claw should not be used in conjunction with these types of medications except under the supervision of a qualified health professional.
- Insulin and Insulin Analogs – one animal study caused lowered blood glucose in fasted normal and diabetic animals. Because of this, devil’s claw should not be used in conjunction with these types of medications except under the supervision of a qualified health professional.
- Sulfonylureas – one animal study caused lowered blood glucose in fasted normal and diabetic animals. Because of this, devil’s claw should not be used in conjunction with these types of medications except under the supervision of a qualified health professional.
- Medications that are changed and/or broken down by the liver. This list is quite extensive.
- P-glycoprotein Substrates (medications moved by pumps in cells)
- H2- blockers (medications that are used to reduce stomach acid)
- Proton pump inhibitors (medications that are used to reduce stomach acid)