turmeric
Alternative Health

Alternative Remedies for Inflammation: How Good Are They?

Editor’s note: People who suffer musculoskeletal inflammatory conditions such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and tendinitis may try some alternative health treatments that have purported anti-inflammatory properties. But do these remedies actually work? Here, experts from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health weigh in on the evidence of how effective these treatments are – or aren’t.

TURMERIC

Turmeric (seen in the illustration above) has a long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine for the treatment of inflammatory disorders. Curcumin, a chemical extracted from turmeric, is often used as a remedy for the treatment and prevention of inflammatory diseases. Preliminary findings from laboratory research suggest that curcumin may have anti-inflammatory properties, but in spite of its long history of use for inflammatory disorders, there is insufficient evidence to support the use of turmeric supplementation for these disorders.

The Evidence Base

The evidence base on efficacy of turmeric for inflammation consists of several laboratory studies and only a few clinical trials.

Efficacy

A 2015 review of laboratory, translational, and clinical data of curcumin for musculoskeletal disorders found that curcumin is an effective therapeutic agent for osteoarthritis.

A 2013 randomized controlled trial of 120 participants with primary knee osteoarthritis found that curcumin extract showed significant decrease of pain symptom and function compared to placebo.

A 2013 systematic review of plant food supplements with anti-inflammatory properties found that in spite of the long-term traditional use for inflammatory disorders, turmeric warrants further investigation.

Safety

Turmeric is considered safe for most adults, but high doses or long-term use may cause indigestion, nausea, or diarrhea.

BROMELAIN

Bromelain is a mixture of enzymes found in the pineapple plant. Bromelain is often used as a dietary supplement for nasal swelling and inflammation, osteoarthritis, cancer, poor digestion, and muscle soreness. In spite of its use, the exact mechanism of action remains poorly understood. There is some evidence that bromelain may be useful as adjunctive therapy to help improve acute nasal and sinus inflammation, but there is insufficient evidence as to whether bromelain has any beneficial effects on other inflammatory conditions.

The Evidence Base

The evidence base on efficacy of bromelain for inflammatory disorders consists of several studies and a systematic review.

Efficacy

A 2014 placebo-controlled trial of 34 patients evaluated the anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effect of bromelain in the postoperative after extraction of impacted lower molars. The study found no statistically significant differences between the bromelain and placebo groups, but a trend toward less inflammation was observed in the bromelain group, compared to placebo.

Findings from a 2006 systematic review of three randomized controlled trials suggest that bromelain is helpful in relieving symptoms of acute nasal and sinus inflammation when used as adjunctive therapy with standard medications such as antihistamines, analgesics, and/or antibiotics.

A 2004 review concluded that current data suggests the potential of bromelain in treating osteoarthritis, but that further studies are needed before a definitive conclusion can be drawn.

Safety

There have been some reports of gastrointestinal problems, increased heart rate, and menstrual problems in people who have taken oral bromelain.

Allergic reactions may occur in individuals who are sensitive or allergic to pineapples or who may have other allergies.

WILLOW BARK

Willow bark has been used for centuries as a treatment for pain, headache, and inflammatory conditions such as bursitis and tendinitis. The bark of white willow contains salicin, the chemical that was used to develop aspirin. In spite of its long history of use, only a few small clinical trials have been conducted that support the use of willow bark extracts in chronic low-back pain and osteoarthritis.

The Evidence Base

The evidence base on efficacy of willow bark extract for inflammatory conditions consists of only a few small clinical studies and a couple of reviews.

Efficacy

A 2015 review of willow bark extract concluded that based on available evidence in conjunction with its anecdotal use for hundreds of years, the findings suggest that willow bark extract is effective as an analgesic and anti-inflammatory.

A 2014 review of two clinical trials involving 261 participants found moderate quality evidence that daily doses of white willow bark are probably better than placebo for short-term improvements in low-back pain and may reduce the use of rescue medication.

A 2009 systematic review of three randomized controlled trials involving a total of 415 participants examined the effectiveness of willow bark extract on musculoskeletal pain and concluded that there is moderate evidence of effectiveness for the use of willow bark extract for treating low-back pain.

Safety

In general, side effects of willow bark appear to be mild. However, people who are allergic or sensitive to salicylates should not use willow bark.

OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS

There is some evidence that omega-3 fatty acids may provide a modest benefit for symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

The Evidence Base

The evidence base on efficacy of omega-3 fatty acids for inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis consists of many randomized controlled trials and a few reviews.

Efficacy

A 2012 systematic review of 23 studies concluded that evidence is seen for a fairly consistent, but modest, benefit of marine omega-3s for rheumatoid arthritis on joint swelling and pain, duration of morning stiffness, pain and disease activity, and less need for anti-inflammatory drugs to control symptoms.

A 2015 randomized controlled trial conducted in overweight/obese pregnant women who received DHA plus EPA or placebo twice a day from week 10-16 to term found that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids for more than 25 weeks reduced inflammation in maternal adipose and the placental tissue.

Safety

Omega-3 fatty acid supplements are generally safe and well-tolerated. When side effects do occur, they typically consist of minor gastrointestinal symptoms and fishy aftertaste.

There is some concern that omega-3 supplements may extend bleeding time. The risk appears to be minimal, and should never be used in patients who take drugs that affect platelet function. It is important to discuss any potential herb-drug interactions with patients if they are considering using omega-3 fatty acids.

It is uncertain whether people with fish or shellfish allergies can safely consume fish oil supplements and should not be used in such patients.

DEVIL’S CLAW

Devil’s claw is an herb native to Africa. Devil’s claw is sometimes used for arthritis, gout, myalgia, tendinitis, and other conditions. There is some limited evidence that devil’s claw may provide modest improvements in low-back pain over the short term. There is some moderate evidence that devil’s claw is beneficial for osteoarthritis of the spine, hip, and knee.

The Evidence Base

The evidence base on efficacy of devil’s claw for non-specific low-back pain consists of a few reviews of a small number of low-quality clinical trials. The evidence base on efficacy of devil’s claw for osteoarthritis consists of a few reviews of several randomized controlled trials.

Efficacy

A 2014 review of two clinical trials involving 315 participants found low quality evidence that daily doses of devil’s claw may be better than placebo for short-term improvements in low-back pain and may reduce use of rescue medication.

A 2008 review of dietary supplements for osteoarthritis concluded that there is insufficient reliable evidence of long-term safety or effectiveness of devil’s claw for this condition.

A 2004 systematic review of 12 clinical trials suggests that specific preparations and doses of devil’s claw may be effective in some types of musculoskeletal pain conditions, including osteoarthritis. An earlier study of 122 participants found that devil’s claw is comparable in efficacy to diacerhein for improving osteoarthritis pain in the hip and knee.

Safety

A 2008 systematic review of 28 clinical trials on the safety of devil’s claw for osteoarthritis and low-back pain concluded that although the incidence of adverse events during treatment with devil’s claw is low, more long-term safety data are needed.

Devil’s claw may affect heart rate and blood pressure and may be harmful in people with heart disease or circulatory system disorders.

Devil’s claw may lower blood glucose levels, so people with diabetes should monitor blood glucose levels closely.

People with gallstones or peptic ulcer disease should avoid using devil’s claw.

GINGER

Historically, ginger has been used in Asian medicine to treat stomach aches, nausea, and diarrhea. Today, ginger is used as a folk or traditional remedy for postsurgery nausea; nausea caused by motion, chemotherapy, and pregnancy; rheumatoid arthritis; osteoarthritis; and joint and muscle pain. Based on available evidence, it is unclear whether supplementation of ginger is beneficial in treating rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, or joint and muscle pain.

The Evidence Base

The evidence base on efficacy of ginger for inflammatory conditions such as muscle pain and osteoarthritis consists of only a few studies and reviews.

Efficacy

A 2010 study of a total of 74 participants examined the effects of ginger on muscle pain and inflammation caused by eccentric exercise. The study found that daily consumption of raw and heat-treated ginger resulted in moderate-to-large reductions in muscle pain following exercise-induced muscle injury.

A 2008 review of dietary supplements for osteoarthritis concluded that there is insufficient reliable evidence of long-term safety or effectiveness of ginger for this condition.

Safety

Few adverse reactions are linked to ginger when taken in small doses. Minor side effects most often reported are gas, bloating, heartburn, and nausea; however, these effects are most often associated with powdered ginger.

THUNDER GOD VINE

Thunder god vine is a perennial vine native to China, Japan, and Korea. It has been used in China for health purposes for more than 400 years. In traditional Chinese medicine, it has been used for conditions involving inflammation or overactivity of the immune system. There is some evidence that thunder god vine may reduce some symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA); however, thunder god vine may be associated with some serious adverse side effects.

The Evidence Base

The evidence base on efficacy of thunder god vine for inflammation consists of several laboratory studies and systematic reviews of only a few high-quality clinical trials.

Efficacy

A 2011 review of three studies compared thunder god vine with sulfasalazine for rheumatoid arthritis, concluded that thunder god vine may reduce some RA symptoms, but may be associated with some serious adverse side effects.

Another 2011 systematic review of complementary health approaches for the management of RA examined three studies on thunder god vine and found positive effects. However, there was no consistent evidence for any of the reviewed substances to suggest that they were efficacious.

Safety

Thunder god vine can cause severe adverse side effects and can be poisonous if it is not carefully extracted from the skinned root. Other parts of the plant—including the leaves, flowers, and skin of the root—are highly poisonous and can cause death.

A number of participants in one study experienced gastrointestinal adverse effects, as well as upper respiratory tract infections.

Thunder god vine can also cause hair loss, headache, menstrual changes, and skin rash.

There are no consistent, high-quality thunder god vine products being manufactured in the United States. Preparations of thunder god vine made outside the United States can sometimes be obtained, but it is not possible to verify whether they are safe and effective.

Thunder god vine has been found to decrease bone mineral density in women who take the herb for 5 years or longer.

Thunder god vine contains chemicals that might decrease male fertility by changing sperm.

For more information on alternative health issues, click here to visit the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website.