What Is Devil’s Claw?
To discuss what it does, it’s important to understand what devil’s claw is. The term “devil’s claw” or “devil’s claw root” refers to Harpogophytum procumbens, a plant found in the Kalahari savanna of southern Africa, Madagascar and the Namibian steppes.
In supplement form, devil’s claw is derived from the dried roots of the plant. African and European traditional and folk doctors have prescribed devil’s claw for centuries to treat digestive ills, reduce fever, relieve pain and to treat certain pregnancy symptoms. (2)
Often, it is hypothesized that devil’s claw benefits originate from the valuable iridoid glucosides it contains, including harpagoside. Iridoids are anti-inflammatory compounds found mostly in plants and are bound to glucose molecules. This is why the whole compound is called an iridoid glucoside. (3) Devil’s claw root, according to the European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy (ESCOP), should contain at least one percent harpagoside.
Devil’s claw also contains useful bioflavonoids and phytosterols, which are plant-based antioxidants with antispasmodic properties (which supports the use of this supplement for digestive problems).
France has approved the marketing of devil’s claw with a claim that it is “traditionally used for symptomatic relief of painful joint disorders.” ESCOP has also approved its use to treat “painful arthritis, tendonitis, loss of appetite and dyspepsia” (acid reflux).
Harpagophytum is literally translated as “hook plant” in Greek. Growing predominantly (and originally) in Africa, devil’s claw looks as if it is literally covered in hooks. The hooks actually cover the fruit of the plant, which allows it to catch on animal fur and therefore spread its seeds.
Devil’s Claw Benefits
1. Arthritis Relief
The most extensively researched of use devil’s claw benefits is its ability to reduce osteoarthritis symptoms.
According to a Japanese study in 2010, devil’s claw (particularly the harpagoside compound) caused a significant reduction of arthritic inflammation in a group of mice. (5)
In general, devil’s claw is accepted by many medical professionals as a “supportive treatment of degenerative, painful rheumatism.” (6) Rheumatism, or rheumatic diseases, includes diagnoses such as osteoarthritis (from wear and tear), rheumatoid arthritis (an autoimmune condition), lupus, ankylosing spondylitis and Sjogren’s syndrome. All of these disorders are marked by chronic inflammation and usually joint, muscle and fibrous tissue pain.
When tested on patients with various rheumatic disorders, devil’s claw seems to significantly reduce pain in the hand, wrist, elbow, shoulder, hip, knee and back. In addition, the same study found that quality of life improved for most patients. In fact, 60 percent of whom were able to reduce or stop taking their other pain medications. (7)
Another uncontrolled trial found an improvement in pain ratings by over 22 percent and as high as 45 percent for various types of osteoarthritis pain. With only two minor adverse reactions (acid reflux and a “full” sensation) in 75 patients, the research here suggests devil’s claw extract may be beneficial for clinical treatment of arthritis, specifically of the hip or knee. (8)
In 2014, an observational study was conducted to investigate the efficacy of a supplement that includes devil’s claw, turmeric and bromelain on rheumatic pain. Results found all patients experienced a reduction in pain, especially chronic joint pain. Researchers discovered no side effects or withdrawal issues and find this three-plant complex to be a safe alternative to NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) for patients with degenerative joint disorders, such as osteoarthritis. (9)
In addition to reducing pain, it’s possible that devil’s claw benefits arthritis sufferers by preventing bone loss. Although tests thus far have taken place only in lab and animal tests, there are promising results that suggest devil’s claw prohibits bone loss in inflammatory osteoporosis. (10) These results are conflicting when it comes to hormonally activated osteoarthritis. (11)
2. Might Aid in Weight Loss
Interestingly, this anti-inflammatory root may also be a novel way to lose weight. A university study conducted in Ireland found devil’s claw can help to stop or slow ghrelin (known as the “hunger hormone”) production. (12) By reducing hunger pangs, those with overeating issues may find their appetites at a level closer to average, aiding their weight loss.
Another way devil’s claw may help those with obesity is by potentially helping to prevent weight-related atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) by the particular way it suppresses inflammation. (13)
3. Natural Painkiller
While it seems to be effective for arthritis pain, devil claw’s benefits for pain don’t stop there. Although it isn’t understood well, devil’s claw reduces inflammation and inflammatory pain in a variety of conditions, including acute (fast onset) pain, with few adverse effects in somewhere around 3 percent of patients. (14)
In an animal study, neuropathic pain (shooting or burning pain often the result of some type of nerve damage) and postoperative pain were reduced after 21 days of treatment with an extract of devil’s claw. (15)
Research conducted in 2001 found that devil’s claw extract given for a period of eight weeks helped to relieve chronic back pain and improve mobility in 117 patients — all of those evaluated within the study — for a period of at least six months. No serious side effects were recorded. (16)
Some sources also recommend using devil’s claw as a treatment for sciatic nerve pain, also referred to as sciatica. It should be noted, however, that no studies have been conducted on the efficacy of devil’s claw on sciatica at the time of this writing.
4. Potential Lymphoma Treatment?
While the research here is in its infancy, there is surprising evidence that devil’s claw may somehow help to impact follicular lymphoma.
In a cancer unit at a hospital in British Columbia, a doctor noticed a partial regression of one patient’s lymphoma after 10 months with no chemotherapy. The patient shared that he was taking two supplements, including devil’s claw. After hearing about this natural treatment, another patient in a support group with the first began taking devil’s claw, followed by a similar regression 11 months later, sustained for four years.
The doctor is careful here to draw conclusions, as a two-patient observation of regression is not solid scientific evidence that devil’s claw can treat or cure cancer. In some research, some 16 percent of lymphoma patients have spontaneous regression of their cancer. However, the physician found the timing curious enough to suggest more studies be done on the potential for devil’s claw to support cancer treatment for follicular lymphoma patients. (17)
5. Fights Chronic Inflammation
One of the reasons devil’s claw is so valuable is its ability to help reduce inflammation, which is at the root of most diseases.
Current research indicates that devil’s claw can help to inhibit tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha), a cytokine (cell-signaling protein) that is involved in the normal inflammation that occurs in the body as it regulates the immune system. (18)
This is significant because when TNF-alpha is overactivated, chronic inflammation can occur and lead to a variety of diseases. In fact, inhibition of TNF-alpha is a major subject of study in the prevention of inflammatory diseases such as rheumatic disease, psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). (19)
6. Rich in Antioxidants
Another basic way devil’s claw can help prevent disease is due to the many antioxidants it contains. According to The Institute of Biochemistry and Microbiology in Düsseldorf, Germany, devil’s claw is “particularly rich in water-soluble antioxidants.” (20)
In fact, some research suggests that some of the anti-inflammatory benefits of devil’s claw may actually be the result of these antioxidants because of the way they work hand-in-hand. (21)
7. May Aid in Digestion
Remember that I mentioned above how devil’s claw benefits include inhibition of TNF-alpha, which is a treatment consideration for inflammatory bowel disease? Inflammation has a great deal to do with digestion.
8. Supports Kidney Health
Another underdeveloped area of study on devil’s claw benefits is the way it might help treat a group of kidney diseases known as glomerular diseases. These illnesses are inflammation-related and refer to diseases that injure the kidney’s tiny filters that clean the blood.
An extract of devil’s claw helped to suppress the formation of nitrites as the extract’s antioxidants acted in this lab test, suggesting to researchers that these extracts “may represent potential anti-inflammatory drugs in the treatment of glomerular inflammatory diseases.” (23)
The History of Devil’s Claw
The exact origin of devil’s claw is unknown, although it is native to southern Africa and found originally in Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Zambia, Madagascar and Zimbabwe. It was first used medicinally in Europe in 1953 to treat arthritis, liver problems, kidney and bladder issues, appetite problems and seasonal allergies.
Devil’s claw is known by a variety of folk names, including grapple plant, wood spider and harpago. These creative monikers refer to the small “hooks” on the fruit of the plant.
How to Find and Use Devil’s Claw
To reap devil’s claw benefits, the roots of the devil’s claw plant are dried and then packaged in capsule or tablet form, or used to create a liquid extract or ointment to use on the skin. Some people make devil’s claw tea to take advantage of the various effects it’s said to have.
As with all supplements, ensure you purchase devil’s claw from a reputable company with transparent ingredients and supplement facts listed. If you choose to try using it to reduce pain, you may want to try both internal (capsule/tablet) and external (ointment) forms to find what works best for you.
Possible Side Effects/Caution
There is a lack of information regarding potential side effects of devil’s claw. Most sources suggest avoiding it if you are pregnant or breastfeeding because the results are unknown. (24)
According to WebMD, people with heart problems, hypertension, low blood pressure, diabetes, gallstones or peptic ulcer disease should avoid devil’s claw. There is at least some evidence that it could affect these conditions. So if you take devil’s claw and have one of these conditions, you should be closely monitored by your health care provider.
Anecdotal reports suggest devil’s claw could increase the production of stomach acid, so if you suffer from chronic heartburn, it may be a factor to consider.
Certain medications could potentially interact with devil’s claw, including medications changed by the liver, because devil’s claw may slow the liver’s breakdown of these substances. The clotting drug warfarin (brand names include Coumadin and Jantoven) may also be affected by devil’s claw.
Other medications that may interact in minor ways with devil’s claw include P-glycoprotein substrates, H2-blockers and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs).
- Devil’s claw is a plant found in parts of Africa. It’s used as a natural remedy for a variety of disorders.
- One of the iridoid glucosides in devil’s claw, known as harpagoside, is the focus of much of the research into devil’s claw benefits. Other compounds are also responsible for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
- A fairly large body of research has been done on the ability of devil’s claw to relieve arthritis pain. Results show that it likely does relieve this pain.
- Devil’s claw benefits may also include weight management, reducing chronic inflammation and preventing oxidative stress.
- Devil’s claw benefits those with many types of chronic pain. Plus it has been found to be particularly effective against back pain.
- Some less-researched possible benefits of devil’s claw include: treatment for follicular lymphoma; prevention of inflammation-induced bone loss in arthritis; and prevention or treatment of certain inflammatory kidney diseases known as glomerular diseases.
- Devil’s claw does not generally have serious side effects. But limited evidence of its safety means you should always take it (and any supplement) under the supervision of your physician.
- It’s possible devil’s claw may interact with certain medications. Consult your doctor before starting devil’s claw if you take other medications regularly.
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