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A Herbal Perspective on Osteoarthritis

21st January 2020

By Pamela Spence, expert medical herbalist

For as long as there have been people on the planet, they have been turning to herbs for help - there are records of herb usage as far back as the ancient kingdoms of Mesopotamia and Babylon. With pain as one of the key symptoms we feel, a lot of our time has been spent trying to reduce it.

I am often asked if herbs are as strong as pharmaceutical painkillers. The short answer is no. I am also frequently asked if people can swap one kind of pharmaceutical for a specific. And the answer to that is also no.

While pharmaceuticals are excellent at delivering generalised, strong pain relief, herb treatment is more complex as an issue can be approached from several angles. What plants lack in strength, they make up for in specificity. When I ask someone about their pain, I don’t just want to know how severe it is, but what is its quality. For example, is it hot? Stabbing, sharp or tearing? Is it dull, throbbing and more like a toothache? Perhaps both types are present - if so, when? Is the tissue cold to the touch or inflamed? Does the pain feel it is in the bones? Are the muscles painful? Is there tendon strain? Each of these answers leads me to a specific group of herbs.

We can also look at diet. While there is much debate written about how the acidity of a diet can affect us, in my clinical experience, some people who have reduced their acid intake have found it can help reduce their pain, while those who are on diets that seem healthy are actually high in acids. The key culprits are oranges, tomatoes and tomato-based sauces, shellfish (particularly prawns), and processed ham products. If this is ringing bells, reduce those things for a few weeks and see what happens.

Psychological responses to pain are also key. If we are stressed, tense or depressed, we are less able to cope with pain. In my patients, it is often a lack of sleep due to pain that starts this negative cycle. Using herbs to improve, reduce stress and improve mood does a lot to increase resilience and significantly improve quality of life.

Here are some of my top tips for herbs you can try:

  • Ashwagandha - Withania Somnifera - a calming herb that helps with stress relief, anxiety, reduces sensitivity to pain and can increase the effect of analgesics
  • Devils’ claw - Hapagophytum Procumbens - a herb that helps reduce intense, sharp pain in inflamed joints
  • Horsechestnut - Aeschylus Hippocastanum - a herb that helps alleviate pain that is dull and throbbing, particularly where there is fluid in the joint
  • Nettles - Urtica Dioica - the nettle leaf reduces inflammation by helping excrete uric acid from the joints. Drinking 2-3 cups of nettle tea can relieve early symptoms of osteoarthritis
  • Milk thistle - Carduus Marianus - supports the liver while it copes with the pharmaceutical load. It can also help cope with constipation caused by some painkillers

As expected, medical herbalists have access to a far wider range of herbs that are available over the counter, like melilot for burning, stabbing pain, fringe tree for pain with poor circulation, and guaiac, which acts a powerful anti-inflammatory. We make up prescriptions specifically for each patient, which work safely alongside pharmaceutical drugs.

In the clinic, I work with a lot of people with osteoarthritis looking for new ways to manage their pain. We work together to reduce prescriptions painkillers, manage side effects and tackle related symptoms. Along with our pain management clinic and resident osteopath, we offer a variety of support for osteoarthritis of the knee.

If you have an underlying health condition or take other pharmaceutical medicines, be safe and speak to a medical herbalist when wanting to try herbs. Never buy herbs online from an unknown source. We can provide advice on the herbs that may help your particular situation.

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