The deserts of southern Africa are home to the peculiar-looking devil's claw plant (Harpagophytum procumbens), so named because of the distinctively shaped tips of its fruits. For years, people indigenous to the African continent dug up the plant's large tuberous roots, chopped them up, and let them dry in the sun. From the dried roots, they then prepared healing formulations to treat arthritis, fever, indigestion, and a number of other conditions.
After European and North American colonists in Africa were introduced to the herb in the 1950s, it began to be examined for its chemical properties and healing potential. Today many herbalists consider devil's claw effective in treating the aching and stiffness of arthritic joints.
It remains unclear just how devil's claw works to reduce inflammation and pain. The latest findings indicate that the plant does not exert anti-inflammatory effects in the same way that many standard anti-inflammatory medications do. Yet test-tube studies still point to slight painkilling and anti-inflammatory actions.
For example, a 1999 study published in Europe reported that devil's claw slightly improved back pain, but the findings were inconsistent. Nearly 200 people with chronic pain were included in this double-blind study. And an earlier study of more than 115 back pain sufferers was even more disappointing, finding no benefit at all to taking devil's claw.
Nonetheless, the popularity of devil's claw persists, and side effects appear to be minimal. Many herbalists continue to recommend this ancient African remedy.
Lessen arthritis-related discomforts. A handful of studies support the use of devil's claw for easing the inflammation and pain that often afflict people with arthritis. Mild pain relief and a lessening of inflammation was noted in a 1976 study that compared the devil's claw with the effects of a common arthritis drug (phenylbutazone).
Despite these results, a 1992 study failed to find that the herb provided anti-inflammatory actions similar to the ones a person would experience with standard medications. The participants took the devil's claw capsules for 21 days.
In parts of Europe, extracts of the herb are sometimes injected around an arthritic joint. Swelling reportedly subsides as a result. Injection formulas may be hard to get in the United States, however.
Stimulate appetite and control indigestion. Sipped periodically over several days, a strong boiled tea (decoction) of the devil's claw root, which contains powerful bitter-tasting substances, helps to perk up the appetite and soothe digestive problems. Folk healers in Africa continue to recommend it highly for these purposes.
In addition, German health authorities consider this type of strong tea effective for treating discomforts due to peptic ulcers and for countering appetite loss.
--Look for a product standardized to contain 3% iridoid glycosides, the active ingredient in devil's claw.
For arthritis-related discomfort: Take 750 mg three times a day.
For appetite loss, indigestion, and heartburn: Prepare a strong, boiled tea and drink 1 cup (8 ounces) before every meal for a maximum of 3 cups a day. To make this tea, boil 1 teaspoon of finely chopped or powered dry root in 2 cups of water for 5 minutes (some of the water will boil away); strain and allow to cool.
Guidelines for Use
The quality of devil's claw preparations appears to vary widely, so buy the herb from a source that you trust.
There appears to be a risk of increased bleeding when devil's claw is taken together with anticoagulant drugs (blood-thinners), such as warfarin (coumadin) and heparin.
Devil's claw has been used for centuries in parts of Africa, but information on side effects is still scanty. Some studies have reported occasional mild stomach upset, ringing in the ears, and headache.
Based on the findings of studies in small animals, there is a small risk of heart rhythm and blood pressure changes with devil's claw. It's not clear whether this effect on the heart occurs in humans.
Because so much remains to be learned about the effect of devil's claw in the body, it's probably best to consult your doctor before taking it if you have ulcers, gallstones, or a heart problem.
Don't take devil's claw during pregnancy or while breast-feeding.