While Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) is named after the sharp hooks on its dried fruit, it is the roots that are used as a traditional herbal medicine.
Devil’s claw is a South African desert plant whose potato-like tubers store water to survive arid, desert conditions. Devil’s claw tubers contain unique compounds known as iridoid glycosides (eg harpagoside, harpagide) with natural antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and painkilling actions. Devil’s claw root extracts have a similar action to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) by suppressing the activity of COX-2 enzymes that trigger inflammation. Devil’s claw also inhibits the release of other inflammatory mediators such as TNF-alpha, interleukin-6 and prostaglandin E2.
Devil’s claw is used to treat low back pain, painful periods, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout and sports injuries. It is also traditionally used as a tonic to help digestive problems, headaches and to reduce fevers.
Devil’s claw and back pain
Devil’s claw extracts, standardized to provide 50mg or 100mg harpagoside, are better than placebo for improving back pain and reducing the need for rescue medication.
In a study involving 117 people with chronic back pain, taking Devil’s claw (480 mg twice significantly improved pain and mobility.
In a study involving 117 people with chronic back pain, taking Devil’s claw (480 mg three times a day) was significantly more effective than placebo, After 4 weeks, 9 out of the 51 people receiving Devil’s claw were pain free compared with only 1 of the 54 receiving placebo. In another study, Devil’s claw was at least as effective as a prescribed NSAID (rofecoxib, which has since been withdrawn).
Another double-blind, placebo-controlled trial involving 63 people with muscle pain and tension in the shoulder, neck or back, found that taking 480mg Devil’s claw twice a day, significantly reduced pain, tenderness and stiffness compared to placebo, with clear benefits seen after two weeks of treatment, and highly significant improvements after 4 weeks treatment.
Devil’s claw and arthritis
Devil’s Claw extracts can significantly improve osteoarthritis and general rheumatic pain and stiffness. A study involving 75 people with arthritis of the hip or knee found that taking Devil’s claw extracts (providing 50mg harpagoside) for 12 weeks reduced pain by 25.8%, stiffness by 22.2% and improved physical function by 23.1%. Medical examination also showed continuous improvements in clinical findings such as a 45.5% reduction in pain on joint palpation, 35% improvement in the limitation of joint mobility and a 25.4% improvement in joint crepitus (creakiness). Devil’s claw also produced significant benefits in quality of life and general wellbeing, with 6 out of 10 people able to reduce or stop their usual pain medication as a result.
Devil’s claw and gout
Devil’s claw promotes the excretion of uric acid, reducing the risk of recurrent gout. However, there are no clinical trials assessing its effectiveness for treating gout symptoms – accounts remain anecdotal, but based on its anti-inflammatory profile it is likely to prove helpful.
Devil’s claw and weight loss
Devil’s claw is traditionally used to support weight loss and has been found to suppress appetite three effects of ghrelin secretion – a hormone made in the stomach which promotes hunger. Although the study was in mice, it significantly reduced food intake, and Devil’s claw is now being investigated as a potential anti-obesity drug.
Devil’s claw dose
Typically 450mg to 600mg concentrated extract, twice a day, ideally with each dose standardised to provide around 50mg harpagoside.
Devil’s claw is often combined with turmeric and bromelain for their synergistic, anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. A study involving people with chronic back or joint pain found this combination (a total of 650mg, taken two or three times a day) reduced pain intensity by between one third and a half within 15 days.
Devil’s claw safety
Do not take Devil’s claw if you have peptic ulcers or indigestion as it promotes secretion of digestive juices. Avoid during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Reported side effects include digestive upset, nausea, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, headache, dizziness and skin reactions. There has been a single report of Devil’s claw increasing blood pressure in one woman.