How does it feel?
The first impression in tasting devil’s claw is a dry bitter taste (due mainly to its most active constituent harpagoside), with a very slight sweetness. The bitterness is not excessive but lingering and persists in the mouth for many minutes.
It is notable that indigenous Kalahari tribespeople used laolao (devil’s claw) not only for joints and muscle pains, that the other use of devil’s claw was as a digestive remedy and to reduce fever.
What can I use it for?
Devil’s claw is specifically used in modern times as a natural and safe treatment for back pain, particularly lower back pain, and osteoarthritis. It should be taken in relatively high doses for at least a month to see real benefits.
Into the heart of Devil’s Claw
Although modern laboratory research has not fully explained its effects it is clear that they are different from the usual aspirin-based or steroidal medicines most often used in conventional treatments for arthritis, and there are no reports of stomach or other digestive upsets. It is best to see this remedy as a gentle but potentially effective contribution to managing persistent aches and pains.
The use of devil’s claw was prominent amongst the indigenous San and Khoi people of southern Africa, and was further adopted by Bantu-speakers. These peoples used the root tuber for a range of conditions including joint and muscle pains, digestive problems, headaches and fever management, and externally for skin inflammations, wounds, ulcers, boils and the relief of pain.
Analgesics are medications that are applied internally or externally to reduce pain. Many of them work by depressing the functions of the central nervous system, Examples of effective analgesics include Jamaican Dogwood (Piscidia erythrina), Pasqueflower (Anenome pulsatilla), California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica), Corydalis (Corydalis yanghusuo) and Wild Lettuce (Lactuca virosa). Topically, Aconite (Aconitum napellus) and Cayenne (Capsicum minimum) are powerful anodynes.Anti-inflammatory
Anti-inflammatory herbs reduce inflammation in the body. There are different systems in the body that anti-inflammatory plants target. For example for the gastrointestinal tract chamomile, fenugreek and meadowsweet are useful. For the musculoskeletal system rosehips, turmeric and celery seed are useful. For inflammation against immune mediated inflammation gotu kola (centella asiatica), rehmannia (rehmannia glutinosa) and feverfew (tanacetum parthenium) can be useful.Bitters
Bitters stimulate digestion by enhancing digestive secretion and peristaltic movements of the gut. They act via a reflex from the taste buds to the brain then through the vagus nerve to whole digestive system. Often these herbs are combined with warming digestives to balance the cold nature of bitters. Examples include Artichoke leaf (Cynara scolymus), Gentian root (Gentiana lutea), Wormwood leaf (Artemisia absinthium), Oregon Grape root (Mahonia aquifolium), Goldenseal root (Hydrastis canadensis).
What practitioners say
In modern herbal clinical practice devil’s claw is used almost entirely as a herbal substitute for anti-inflammatory medicines. Its indigenous use however reflects its bitter digestive prospects and this may merit further exploration in modern practice.
Evidence and experience suggests that devil’s claw needs to be provided in relatively large doses for real benefit, with over 3 grams per day over at least a month or two for back pain and arthritis. It is also likely to be more effective for moderate rather than severe problems.
There is little consistent indication of the way in which devil’s claw could reduce inflammation but some COX2-mediated reduction in NF-kappaB activity has been reported for harpagoside (2).
The 2016 Cochrane review on herbal treatment for low back pain (the leading source of evidence-based systematic reviews) has concluded that with caveats for methodological quality devil’s claw has an impact on arthritic pain greater than placebo (3). An earlier review had concluded that there was moderate evidence of benefit in osteoarthritic conditions as well as low back pain for devil’s claw preparations delivering between 50-100mg harpagoside (4).
Did you know?
Devil’s claw has a nasty way of propagating itself. The name is supposed to have arisen from the desperate dance that animals use in an attempt to extricate from their feet the grappling claws on the fruit.
Devil’s claw is the root from a plant native to the Kalahari Desert in southwest Africa. It is a weedy, perennial plant with creeping stems spreading from a tuberous rootstock. The greyish-green leaves are placed either alternately or directly opposite each other. The characteristic fruits have long branching arms with anchor-like hooks (which assist their dissemination by animals) and which give the plant its most common name. The primary root descends up to 2m with secondary roots spreading out for up to 1.5m on all sides, which allows it to conserve water.
Alternative botanical names:
Harpagophytum zeyheri is commonly mixed with commercial samples of H. procumbens and is difficult to differentiate from it.
Two subspecies of H. procumbens are deﬁned: subsp. procumbens and subsp. transvaalensis.
- Grapple plant (Eng)
- Trampelklette (Ger)
- Griffe du diable (Fr)
- Duiwelsklou (Afrik)
- Laolao (Indigenous)
Devil’s claw has shown itself to have a good safety profile in toxicological studies (5). A systematic review of published clinical trials on devil’s claw concluded adverse effects were comparable with placebo (6).
3-6 g/day of the dried root taken between meals.
- Iridoid glycosides (0.5 to 3.0%), primarily harpagoside, isoharpagoside, harpagide, procumbide
- Phenolic acids and glycosides,
It is possible that the iridoid glycosides are converted into an active monoterpene alkaloid aucubinine B by bacterial species in the gut microbiome (1). This could be a significant factor in modulating inflammation and would add to the variability in effects that have been noted in clinical trials.
- Baghdikian B, Guiraud-Dauriac H, Ollivier E, et al. (1999) Formation of nitrogen-containing metabolites from the main iridoids of Harpagophytum procumbens and H. zeyheri by human intestinal bacteria. Planta Med. 65(2): 164-6. doi: 10.1055/s-2006-960456
- Huang TH, Tran VH, Duke RK, et al. (2006) Harpagoside suppresses lipopolysaccharide-induced iNOS and COX-2 expression through inhibition of NF-kappa B activation. J Ethnopharmacol. 104(1-2):149-55. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2005.08.055
- Gagnier JJ, Oltean H, van Tulder MW, et al. (2016) Herbal Medicine for Low Back Pain: A Cochrane Review. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 41(2): 116-33. doi: 10.1097/BRS.0000000000001310
- Gagnier JJ, Chrubasik S, Manheimer E. (2004) Harpgophytum procumbens for osteoarthritis and low back pain: a systematic review. BMC Complement Altern Med. 4: 13. doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-4-13.
- EMEA (European Medicines Agency), 2009. Assessment Report on Harpagophytum procumbens DC. and/or Harpagophytum zeyheri Decne, Radix
- Vlachojannis J, Roufogalis BD, Chrubasik S. (2008) Systematic review on the safety of Harpagophytum preparations for osteoarthritic and low back pain. Phytother Res. 22(2): 149-52. doi: 10.1002/ptr.2314