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Devil’s Claw: Health Benefits beyond Pain Relief

Devil’s claw is an herbal painkiller that is commonly used to treat bone and muscle pain including osteoarthritis and back pain. The herb comes from a southern African plant Harpagophytum procumbens (Burchell) that is also known as grapple plant and takes its name from the claw-like hooks that cover the plant’s large fruits. Natives have used this herb as medicine for thousands of years to reduce pain and fever, treat liver, kidney and skin problems and to stimulate digestion. And indeed, the latest research suggests that, besides relieving pain, devil’s claw can also be effective in the treatment of allergies, upset stomach, loss of appetite and fever, while topical ointments may help to heal skin sores, lesions and ulcers.

Health Effects of Devil’s Claw

Like all herbs, devil’s claw has several active ingredients including flavonoids, harpagoside, procumbide and sigmasterol. These substances suppress inflammation by blocking one of the chemical processes in the body that causes inflammation. As a result, they reduce the pain of inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. Harpagoside is thought to be the main active ingredient responsible for the beneficial health effects of this herb.

Most medical scientists agree that devil’s claw is effective in relieving musculoskeletal pain (e.g., arthritis or back pain). Some even suggest that it is as good as conventional drug therapy at relieving such pain. It needs to be mentioned, though, that devil’s claw acts very much like a conventional painkiller. Hence, it does not deal with the cause of the pain, just the pain itself.

However, devil’s claw has been credited with several other health benefits, in addition to its pain-relieving properties. These include treatment of digestive problems such as upset stomach as well as loss of appetite, gout, rheumatoid arthritis, high cholesterol, allergies, skin problems and migraine headaches. The jury is still out on to what extent this is true.

Potential Health Risks of Devil’s Claw

The health risks from taking devil’s claw are small and side effects are rare, usually mild and they do not last long. If side effects do occur, they will usually go away on their own when the patient stops taking the herb. They usually involve problems with the stomach and digestive tract such as diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, loss of apetite and taste and abdominal pain. For this reason, patients who have stomach ulcers should not take devil’s claw. In very rare cases, side effects may also involve allergic reactions, ringing in the ears, headaches and menstrual problems.

As with most herbal remedies, pregnant or breastfeeding women and children under 12 should not take devil’s claw, because there is no clear proof that it is absolutely safe for developing babies and small children.

The herb may interact with anticoagulants (blood-thinning agents such as warfarin), blood sugar lowering drugs, antacids, and with some heart medications, either affecting their effectiveness or causing unpredictable side effects. Patients taking such medications should tell their doctor before trying devil’s claw.

Although devil’s claw is not entirely free of troublesome side effects, overall, there is no question that, in the right hands, the herb can be beneficial.

How to Take Devil’s Claw

Devil’s claw is available as capsules, tablets, medicinal extracts, powder and topical ointments made from the roots and tubers of the plant. However, the quality of commercially available extracts can vary greatly. Good quality products should be standardised to harpagoside content, the main active ingredient in devil’s claw.

A safe dosage is three doses of 500mg of dried devil’s claw a day or an equivalent preparation. A standardised supplement is best because it provides a guaranteed amount of the herb’s active ingredient harpagoside in each pill. It is recommended to see an herbalist for treatment that is tailored to the patient’s exact needs.

Where to Find More Information: MedlinePlus