author: Dr. Kevin Curran
Background on devil’s claw plant
Devils claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) is a small desert plant that is native to southern Africa. This plant grows close to the ground and produces purple corolla-shaped flowers. Historically, devils claw was used as an African folk remedy. Natives living in the Kalahari Desert dried and chopped up the roots to treat pain, inflammation and rheumatoid arthritis. Eventually, in the early 1800’s, colonists introduced the plant to Europe. It soon became popular in Germany and France to use devils claw plant for pain and osteoarthritis related issues. This African herb is now reported to alleviate joint pain in humans, dogs and horses.
The common name ‘devils claw’ is a reference to the dramatic hooks that cover the dried seed pod (see picture). These hooks function like Velcro; they allow the seed pod to stick to the fur of animals. Once the seed pod is stuck to the fur of a passing animal, the seeds then hitch a ride on the animal and get a chance to germinate in new territory. Smart plant!
In this article, we explore the biology behind the use of devils claw.
At the end of this page, we review factors to consider when choosing a devils claw supplement.
Devil’s claw plant (left). Dried seed pod displaying sharp, branching claws (right).
Devils claw plant for pain
Devils claw is currently used in response to back pain and osteoarthritis. Multiple clinical studies have demonstrated devils claw’s effectiveness in response to these pain related health problems (Gagnier, 2006; Gobel, 2001; Leblan, 2000; Wegener, 2003; Chrubasik, 2003).
As a result, the German Commission E (the German equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) has approved devils claw as a non-prescription medicine. This, in turn, has made devils claw a popular herbal supplement in Europe.
Back pain is a common problem. As much as 35% of the population suffer some form of back pain (Gagnier, 2006). A summary of published clinical data suggests that daily doses of devils claw is sufficient to alleviate pain in the lower back (Chrubasik, 1999; Gagnier, 2006; Gobel, 2001, Chrubasik, 2003).
Furthermore, trial results performed on adults suffering from acute or chronic non-specific back pain demonstrate that daily use of devils claw was just as effective as traditional pain medications, such as NSAIDS (Gagnier, 2006).
Devils claw and arthritis
Devils claw has also performed well in clinical trials for osteoarthritis (Dougados, 2001; Leblan, 2000; Mahomed, 2004; Wegener, 2003).
Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, occurs when the protective cartilage covering the ends of your bones begins to wear down. Osteoarthritis usually worsens over time and, unfortunately, there is no cure available. That said, devils claw is one option to help manage the pain and lack of mobility.
A 4-month study of osteoarthritic patients revealed devils claw was as effective at reducing pain and discomfort as the traditionally prescribed medication, diacerhein (Leblan, 2000). Additionally, the patients in the devils claw treatment group reported less need to supplement their osteoarthritis medication with additional anti-inflammatory or painkiller drugs (acetaminophen, ibuprofen, NSAIDS, ext.)
By lowering dependence on these traditional painkillers, the use of devils claw can also reduce the liver and stomach issues, which are common with habitual use of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. More studies are necessary to further evaluate devils claws’ efficacy and long term effects, but as it stands, it is my opinion that this plant has shown to be a reasonable option to address back and bone discomfort.
How does devil’s claw work?
The active ingredient in devil’s claw is called harpagide. This chemical is an iridoid glycoside and is likely responsible for the plant’s anti-inflammatory effects. Work in mouse cells shows that harpagides can reduce the production of inflammatory cytokines in macrophage cells. These inflammatory cytokines include IL-6, IL-1β and TNF-α (Lim, 2014). Macrophage cells are cells in our immune system that help our body identify trauma or tissue damage.
Another line of research demonstrates how an extract of the devil’s claw plant can prevent the inflammatory gene expression pathway by blocking a transcription factor called AP-1. This activator protein (AP-1) would normally positively regulate inflammatory genes (COX-2 and TNF-α). Therefore, by repressing AP-1, you could shut down this pathway and reduce inflammation (Fiebich, 2012).
Devil’s claw and Vioxx
An intriguing report was published in 2003. This publication showed devils claw was as effective as Vioxx in terms of easing lower back pain (Chrubasik, 2003).
Vioxx (rofecoxib) gained worldwide popularity as a commonly prescribed pain medication. Merck marketed this drug. Over 80,000 patients were prescribed Vioxx at some point. Vioxx is a NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) that inhibits COX-2. COX-2 is a gene that promotes the synthesis of a series of prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are hormone-like lipids that are responsible for pain and inflammation in our body. Therefore, if you take a drug that shuts down COX-2, then you reduce the pain and inflammation in your body. Vioxx was a big hit, right up until September, 2004. That’s when Merck had to remove it from the marketplace. Vioxx had the unfortunate side effect of causing occasional heart attacks and strokes in long term users. This story serves as a good reminder to be cautious of the side effects of any and all medications, including medicinal plants…
Devil’s claw for horses and dogs
As animals age, they can experience arthritis in their joints. Horses and dogs are especially susceptible to this unfortunate condition. It’s not fun to watch your dog struggle to stand up from their afternoon nap. Lameness, pain and stiffness settle into animal’s joints.
Time waits for no man, nor dog, nor horse . . . medication can help though.
NSAIDS, corticosteroids, glucosamine or therapeutic herbs are all options. Talk to your veterinarian to hear their opinion.
In terms of plant based options, we’ve heard practitioners discuss the benefits of: turmeric, boswellia, ginger and devil’s claw.
As discussed above, the active ingredients in devil’s claw (harpagides) are reported to alleviate the pain of osteoarthritis. Some horse and dog owners claim that devil’s claw is a better alternative to cortisone and NSAIDS. Efficacy seems to depend on the manner that this African herb is grown and harvested. Ideally, the devil’s claw plant is harvested in a manner that optimizes the amount of harpagides present in the plant material. The age of the plant and the time of the year harvested can all effect this crucial factor. As with all herbal supplements, try to choose a devil’s claw product that quantifies the concentration of active ingredients.
Sidenote: If you are a horse owner and contemplating adding devil’s claw to your horse’s diet, be aware of the following warnings.
- Do not feed devil’s claw to pregnant mares. It may complicate the birthing process.
- Devil’s claw is currently a banned substance in some equestrian disciplines, such as dressage.
Devil’s claw reviews: factors to look for in a quality devils claw supplement.
When looking at devils claw brands, you want to be certain that your supplement lists ‘Harpagophytum procumbens’ on the label. This is the correct species of devil’s claw plant. Furthermore, the bottle should provide a specific milligram (mg.) amount for the plant material.
Most importantly, you should avoid using devils claw if you are pregnant or are currently suffering from diabetes, gall stones or stomach ulcers.
At EthnoHerbalist, we are committed to helping you avoid any company that may mislabel or sell a fraudulent herbal supplement. All of the companies mentioned below (Solaray, Nature’s Way and Herb Pharm) conduct multiple verification steps to ensure the identity and purity of the herbal plant in each bottle.
Bookmark this page! We will continually update this article with new health reports and clinical data exploring the use of devils claw for pain and related issues.
Chrubasik S et al. “Effectiveness of Harpagophytum extract WS 1531 in the treatment of exacerbation of low back pain: a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study.” European Journal of Anaesthesiology. 16.2: (1999) 118-29.
Chrubasik, S., et al. “A randomized double‐blind pilot study comparing Doloteffin® and Vioxx® in the treatment of low back pain.” Rheumatology 42.1 (2003): 141-148.
Dougados M et al. “Evaluation of the structure-modifying effects of diacerein in hip osteoarthritis: ECHODIAH, a three-year, placebo-controlled trial.” Arthritis and Rheumatism. 44.11: (2001)2539-47.
Fiebich BL, Muñoz E, Rose T, Weiss G, McGregor GP. Molecular targets of the antiinflammatory Harpagophytum procumbens (devil’s claw): inhibition of TNFα and COX-2 gene expression by preventing activation of AP-1. Phytother Re. 2012 Jun;26(6):806-11.
Gagnier JJ et al. “Herbal medicine for low back pain.” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 19.2:(2006) CD004504.
Gobel H et al. “Effects of Harpagophytum procumbens LI 174 solaray devil’s claw on sensory, motor and vascular muscle in the treatment of unspecific back pain.” Schmerz. 15.1:10-8. 2001.
Leblan D et al. “Harpagophytum procumbens in the treatment of knee and hip osteoarthritis. Four-month results of a prospective, multicenter, double-blind trial versus diacerhein.” Joint Bone Spine. 67.5 (2000):462-7.
Lim DW, Kim JG, Han D, Kim YT. Analgesic effect of Harpagophytum procumbens on postoperative and neuropathic pain in rats. Molecules. 2014 Jan 16;19(1):1060-8.
Mahomed IM and Ojewole JA. “Analgesic, anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic properties of Harpagophytum procumbens, devil’s claw reviews herb secondary root aqueous extract.” Phytotherapy Research. 18.12 (2004):982-9.
Wegener T and Lupke NP. “Treatment of patients with arthritis of hip or knee with an aqueous extract of devil’s claw amazon.”Phytotherapy Research. 17.10 (2003):1165-72.