Guide to devil’s claw

Devil’s claw has been used in traditional African medicine for centuries for a variety of conditions, including joint and muscle pain, backache, digestive problems, headaches, fever and skin inflammation. Native to the Kalahari Desert in South Africa, the herb takes its common name from its tuberous roots that resemble claws.

Devil’s claw is available in the UK as a registered traditional herbal medicine (THR) as Devil’s Claw JointAid (THR) and based on traditional use only, is used to relieve backache, rheumatic and muscular pain. The THR scheme guarantees the ingredients are of a standard quality and have been used in traditional medicine for at least 30 years.

Dr Sarah Brewer says: ‘Traditionally used as a bitter tonic to aid digestion and fever, research has found that taking a devil’s claw supplement may help to reduce joint pain, stiffness and backache to help maintain your mobility.’

What does devil’s claw do?

The exact mechanism for how devil’s claw works is not fully understood, but its tubers contain a high concentration of harpagosides, chemicals which have anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties.

In laboratory tests, devil’s claw has been shown to block several pathways that cause joint inflammation. It’s a useful natural remedy for a wide variety of joint conditions and back pain.

Back pain

Back pain affects up to 35 per cent of the population in any given month. Most people will recover in a few weeks or months, but some experience long term pain which can be extremely debilitating.

A Cochrane review of studies said one trial of devil’s claw, taken at a standardised dose of 50mg or 100mg of harpagoside, reduced lower back pain more than a placebo. A standardised daily dose of 60mg devil’s claw, reduced pain at about the same level as a daily dose of 12.5mg Vioxx® (an anti-inflammatory drug now discontinued).

Osteoarthritis

Devil’s claw may be helpful in reducing pain, inflammation and stiffness related to osteoarthritis (OA), a painful joint condition and the commonest type of arthritis in the UK.

Evidence suggests devil’s claw works as well as commonly prescribed drug treatments for OA. A 2017 study by North East Ohio Medical University found that harpagosides, the compounds in devil’s claw, have a significant anti-inflammatory effect on cartilage cells.

Getting devil’s claw from your diet

You can drink devil’s claw as a tea or a tincture, available from health food stores. Alternatively, take it as a supplement. Recent studies show its benefits are reduced by stomach acidity, making it more effective as a concentrated extract in tablet form rather than in teas or liquid preparations. For the same reason, it should be taken between meals when stomach activity is at its lowest.

Safety

Minor side effects reported include rashes, stomach upsets, diarrhoea, headaches and loss of appetite. Devil’s claw should not be taken if you are pregnant, as it may harm the developing foetus, and it’s not recommended whilst breastfeeding.

Although uncommon, devil’s claw can cause the more serious side effects of abnormal heart rhythm and bleeding. Avoid taking devil’s claw if you are on any blood-thinning medication, such as warfarin or heparin, painkillers, heart drugs (for example, digoxin) and stomach acid drugs (such as famotidine).

Devil’s claw may increase bile production, so avoid taking it if you have gallstones or peptic ulcer disease.

Correct dosage

There is currently no UK or EU recommended daily allowance or upper safe limit. A suggested dose is one 450mg extract tablet (equivalent to 1,575-2,250mg of fresh devil’s claw root) taken twice a day, morning and evening.

Devil’s claw should be taken for four to eight weeks for the full effects to be seen. People with OA may benefit from taking devil’s claw alongside glucosamine – thought to slow cartilage degeneration – whilst devil’s claw can ease inflammation and pain.

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

Traditionally used as a bitter tonic to aid digestion and fever, research has found that taking a devil’s claw supplement may help to reduce joint pain, stiffness and backache to help maintain your mobility.

Dr Sarah Brewer
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