Arthritis literally means “joint inflammation,” but medically it also refers to more than 100 different rheumatic diseases that cause pain, stiffness, and swelling in joints or connective tissue. One form of arthritis or another afflicts 50 million Americans, and it’s the most prevalent cause of disability in people 65 and older.
Osteoarthritis (OA) develops from excessive wear to the cartilage between joints, commonly affecting athletes and older people who have “worn out” their joints. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), on the other hand, is an autoimmune disease, meaning the body’s immune system attacks itself, causing pain and inflammation. RA can strike any joint—regardless of how much or little it’s been used—at any age.
Here are some of the best herbs to use for relieving arthritis symptoms.
Turmeric is a staple in Ayurvedic medicine for treating arthritis. It works, in part, by inhibiting an enzyme in the body called cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2). When the body overproduces COX-2, chronic inflammation and pain are the result.
A study published in Inflammopharmacology tested turmeric extract for knee arthritis. The herb was shown to improve symptoms significantly compared to a placebo. Use up to 10 grams of powdered turmeric, in capsules, per day. Use it liberally in cooking too. You can make a turmeric tea by mixing 1 tsp. of turmeric with honey to form a paste, then adding hot water.
Also known as frankincense, boswellia (Boswellia serrata) contains boswellic acids, compounds that help prevent inflammation via several mechanisms in the body. A 2013 study in Rheumatology compared several herbal remedies, including boswellia, to the supplement glucosamine and the arthritis drug celecoxib. The results were impressive—the herbs reduced knee pain and improved knee function as well as the drug and glucosamine. Take 500 mg per day of boswellia extract standardized to 30% boswellic acid.
Combining boswellia with other herbal anti-inflammatories may be even more beneficial. According to a study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, researchers gave patients with OA either a combination of 100 mg of boswellia, 450 mg of ashwagandha, 50 mg of turmeric, and 50 mg of a zinc complex per day, or a placebo, for three months. The herbal combination significantly reduced the severity of pain and disability associated with OA.
In a study published in Arthritis & Rheumatology, ginger (Zingiber officinale) was tested in 261 people who suffered from OA of the knee. Patients received either ginger extract or a placebo twice daily for six weeks. The ginger group experienced less pain overall, and reported reduced knee pain when standing and after walking. In capsules, take 250 mg per day.
Topically, a ginger compress helps bring blood to an area, thereby speeding healing. In one study from the Journal of Holistic Nursing, researchers evaluated changes in moderate-to-severe osteoarthritis before and after treatment with a topical ginger compress or patch. Twenty adults with chronic osteoarthritis received seven days of topical ginger treatments by trained nurses, and then the participants self-administered the treatments for 24 more weeks. After just one week, subjects reported a decline in pain and fatigue that continued over the course of the study. Researchers concluded that topical ginger treatment has the potential to relieve symptoms and increase independence in people with chronic osteoarthritis.
Simmer the fresh herb (about ½ cup grated or sliced ginger) or brew a strong batch of ginger tea. Soak a washcloth in this preparation and apply as needed.
For rheumatoid arthritis pain and swelling, try rubbing a little aloe (Aloe vera) gel directly on your joints. You can purchase the gel (most commonly used for sunburn pain), or grow your own. Snip a leaf directly from the plant and rub the gel on afflicted joints as you would lotion.
A traditional pain reliever, willow bark (Salix alba) contains salicin and other constituents (salicylates) that are the herbal forerunners of aspirin. A review of several studies published in Phytotherapy Research concluded that willow bark performed as well as commonly used drugs for musculoskeletal pain. Take 400 mg of willow bark per day in capsules as needed. Willow bark also makes a soothing tea. Simmer 1 oz. of chopped bark for an hour, strain, and drink over the course of the day.
CBD oil from hemp (Cannabis sativa) is a well-established anti-inflammatory. Anecdotal reports confirm its ability to moderate pain and inflammation. All cannabis plants contain an array of cannabinoids—powerful plant compounds that have multiple healing properties.
Cannabinoids don’t come just from the cannabis plant—we also make them in our bodies. The ones we make are called endocannabinoids (endo meaning coming from within). The well-known “runner’s high” is actually caused by an endocannabinoid that increases in the blood during aerobic exercise and then crosses the blood-brain barrier and binds to cannabinoid receptors in the brain. Certain herbs, such as ginger and boswellia, help naturally support your body’s cannabinoid system for less pain and inflammation.