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Native to southern Africa, devil's claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) gets its name from the tiny hooks that cover its fruit. Historically, devil’s claw has been used to treat pain, liver and kidney problems, fever, and malaria. It has also been used in topical ointments to heal sores, boils, and other skin problems. Devil’s claw was introduced to Europe in the early 1900s, where the dried roots have been used to restore appetite, relieve heartburn, and reduce pain and inflammation. Today, devil's claw is used to fight inflammation or relieve pain in arthritis, headache, and low back pain. Animal and test tube studies suggest that devil’s claw can help fight inflammation, and it is used widely in Germany and France.
Devil's claw does not have an odor, but it contains substances that make it taste bitter. It is a leafy perennial with branching roots and shoots. It has secondary roots, called tubers, that grow out of the main roots. The roots and tubers are used as medicine.
Medicinal Uses and Indications
Several studies have found that taking devil's claw for 8 - 12 weeks reduces pain and improves physical functioning in people with osteoarthritis. One 4-month study of 122 people with knee and hip osteoarthritis compared devil’s claw and a leading European medication for pain relief. The people who took devil’s claw had as much pain relief as the people who took the medication, and those who took devil’s claw had fewer side effects and needed fewer pain relievers throughout the study.
An analysis of 14 studies using devil’s claw to treat arthritis found that the higher quality studies showed that devil’s claw may provide relief for joint pain. And a review of 12 studies using devil’s claw for arthritis or low back pain found that devil’s claw was at least moderately effective for arthritis of the spine, hip, and knee.
Back and neck pain
Although many of the studies have been small and not well designed, there is some evidence that devil's claw may help relieve low back and neck pain. In a small study of 63 people with mild-to-moderate back, neck, or shoulder pain, taking a standardized extract of devil’s claw for 4 weeks provided moderate relief from muscle pain. In a larger study of 197 men and women with chronic low back pain, those who took devil’s claw every day for a month said they had less pain and needed fewer painkillers than those who received placebo.
Another study compared 38 people who took devil’s claw with 35 people who took the pain reliever rofecoxib (Vioxx), for up to 54 weeks. Results indicated that devil's claw worked as well as Vioxx to relieve pain. Vioxx has been taken off the market because it increased the risk of heart problems.
Many professional herbalists suggest devil's claw to treat upset stomach, loss of appetite, headaches, allergies, and fever. Topical preparations of devil's claw are also applied to the surface of the skin to heal sores, ulcers, boils, and skin lesions. However, there aren’t any scientific studies of devil’s claw to treat these conditions.
What's It Made Of?
Devil's claw contains iridoid glycosides, components believed to have strong anti-inflammatory effects. Harpagoside, one type of iridoid, is highly concentrated in devil's claw root and some laboratory tests suggest it may have significant pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties.
Devil's claw is available as dried or fresh root supplements and is found in capsules, tablets, liquid extracts, and topical ointments. Teas (infusions) can also be made from dried devil's claw root.
How to Take It
Devil’s claw is not recommended for children, since studies have not been done to see if it is safe.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach for strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, contain components that can trigger side effects and interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, herbs should be taken with care, under the supervision of a health care provider qualified in the field of botanical medicine.
Devil's claw is considered nontoxic and safe, with few side effects if taken at the recommended dose for a short time. High doses can cause mild stomach problems in some people. Researchers don’t know if it would be safe to take devil’s claw for a long time.
People with stomach ulcers, duodenal ulcers, or gallstones should not take devil's claw.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should not take devil’s claw, because no studies have been done to see if it is safe.
People with heart disease or high or low blood pressure should ask their doctors before taking devil’s claw.
Blood-thinning medications -- Theoretically, devil’s claw may increase the risk of bleeding, especially if you already take blood-thinners such as aspirin, warfarin (Coumadin), or clopidogrel (Plavix).
Medications for diabetes -- Devil’s claw may lower blood sugar. If you take medications to treat diabetes, taking devil’s claw may raise the risk of developing low blood sugar.
Antacids -- Devil’s claw may increase the amount of stomach acid, meaning antacids wouldn’t work as well.
Other medications -- Devil’s claw may interact with other medications that are processed by the liver. If you take any medications, ask your doctor before taking devil’s claw.
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Review Date: 1/2/2011
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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