Devil's Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) is a flowering desert plant with anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, used traditionally as an herbal remedy for rheumatic and other conditions. The San and Khoikhoi peoples of southern Africa made medicinal preparations from the plant’s root and tuber. These preparations were used as a bitter tonic and for their anti-inflammatory effects, both internally and externally. Arthritic and blood conditions, headache, fever, indigestion, diabetes, gout, and tuberculosis were treated with this traditional medicine. Also, it was used as a mouthwash for bleeding gums as well as for high blood pressure, menstrual cramps, ulcers, snakebites, and low-back pain. In ointments, the plant was used as a treatment for skin problems, to heal wounds and burns.
European colonists adopted the use of the plant in the 1900s. They took devil's claw back to their countries where it was popular to treat arthritis, pain, and to restore appetite.
Today, the main use of devil’s claw is as an anti-inflammatory agent and for pain relief in joint diseases like osteoarthritis (also known as degenerative arthritis). These effects are also supported by clinical studies.
There are many types of Devil's claw supplements, including concentrated extracts, capsules, tablets, and herbal teas.
Origin and types
Harpagophytum procumbens DC (Devil’s claw, Grapple plant, or Wood spider) is a flowering plant of the sesame family (Pedaliaceae). This perennial grows on sandy soils and is native to savannah areas of Southern Africa. For medical purposes, Devil’s claw root is supplied by the two main Harpagophytum species, Harpagophytum zeyheri and Harpagophytum procumbens DC. Both plants look similar but can be told apart by the length of the arms of the fruit. The fruits of H. procumbens have very long, curved arms, while those of H. zeyheri are shorter. The plant parts used in Herbal Medicine are the tuberous secondary roots. These devil’s claw roots, also called Harpagophyti radix, are collected when the rainy season ends.
What does the plant look like?
Devil’s claw is a weedy, spreading perennial with tubers and many round to oval-shaped stems. The leaves are grey-green with white, hairy undersides. The trumpet-shaped flowers can be red, purple, or pink, with a yellow base and throat. They appear in spring followed by the fruit. The fruits have numerous long arms with hooked, claw-like thorns that cling to passing animals and help to spread the seeds.
Where the name comes from
The plant’s scientific and common names both refer to the appearance of its hooked fruit. The genus name Harpagophytum is made up of the Greek words “Harpagos”, meaning “grappling hook,” and “phyton”, meaning “plant.” Also, the common name Devil’s claw is a vivid description of the hooked spines covering the fruits.
Proboscidea altheaefolia and Proboscidea parviflora are two other plant species that are also referred to as (desert or yellow-flowered) devil's claw. They can be found in the desert southwest of the United States. These plants belong to a different family and although they are sharing their common name, Harpagophytum procumbens and H. zeyheri are the only types believed to have medicinal properties.
Devil's Claw as a medicinal plant
Because of its anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects, the plant is widely used to treat rheumatic conditions affecting the joints, ligaments, tendons, bones, and muscles. It helps relieve rheumatism, gout, inflammation of tendons, bursitis, and headaches.
However, osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease, and low back pain are thought to benefit most from the use of Harpagophytum preparations.
Research has shown Devil’s claw extract to be equal to several nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for pain relief. The efficacy and safety of a devil’s claw supplement were tested in a double-blind, randomized clinical trial in 122 adults suffering from osteoarthritis of the knee and hip. The study results showed that the Harpagophytum procumbens containing capsules were comparable to the used conventional anti-inflammatory drug for osteoarthritis but had fewer side effects. In 2004, the renowned scientists Gagnier JJ and Chrubasik S did a systematic review to determine the effectiveness of Harpagophytum procumbens preparations in the treatment of various forms of musculoskeletal pain. Based on placebo-controlled trials, they found strong evidence for the use of an aqueous extract of H. procumbens (daily dose equivalent of 50 mg harpagoside) in the treatment of acute episodes of chronic non-specific low-back pain.
The European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy (ESCOP) and also Health Canada approves Devil’s Claw root as an herbal medicine for relief of joint pain associated with osteoarthritis.
Medicinal Properties of Devil’s Claw
- Anti-inflammatory effect
- Analgesic activities
How or what it is used for
- Lower back pain
- Osteoarthritis-related pain
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Gout (swelling/inflammation of the joints)
- Tendinitis (swelling/inflammation of a tendon)
- High cholesterol
- Muscle pain
- Migraine headaches
- Loss of appetite
- Indigestion (dyspepsia)
- Menstrual cramps
- Irregular periods
- Wound healing, when applied to the skin
Harpagophytum procumbens contains iridoid glycosides, which have anti-inflammatory effects. Harpagoside, a type of iridoid glycoside has a high concentration in the roots of the plant. Harpagoside produces the anti-inflammatory activity of the plant and decreases inflammation, which reduces swelling and pain. Animal studies show it significantly suppresses cytokines, the inflammation-promoting molecules in the body. Still, it is unclear how it works. According to the European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy (ESCOP), any Harpagophytum procumbens supplements should contain a minimum of 1.2 % harpagoside.
Additional to iridoid glycosides, Harpagophytum procumbens contain phytosterols and bioflavonoids. These are bioactive compounds with antioxidant and antispasmodic properties that help to treat digestive issues with Devil’s claw. It is available over-the-counter in several forms, like liquid extracts and tinctures, tablets or capsules.
What makes Devil’s Claw different?
Cautions and drug interactions
Devil’s claw should not be used during pregnancy or breast-feeding. It is also contraindicated to people who are hypersensitive to devil's claw or any non-medicinal ingredients of the preparation, and children. Since the plant might increase the production of stomach acids, it should not be used in patients with gastric or duodenal ulcers. Devil’s claw might also increase bile production. Therefore, people with gallstones should always consult a healthcare provider before use. Also, discuss with a healthcare practitioner before use if you are diabetic as the remedy might lower blood sugar levels. Devil's claw may affect heart rate, heartbeat, and blood pressure. Thus, people with disorders of the heart and circulatory system should talk with their healthcare provider before starting devil's claw.
In general, it’s always recommended to let your healthcare practitioner know what medications you are taking, whether they are pharmaceutical, herbal or homeopathic.
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