Herbal analgesics (Part 1)

A range of herbs available as oral supplements and topical preparations may be useful as analgesics (pain medications) in individuals with RA. It is important to note that herbal supplements are not a replacement for proven disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), including both conventional DMARDs and newer biologics, which have been shown to slow or prevent the progression of joint damage in RA. Herbal supplements may be useful as adjunctive treatments (this means secondary treatments used in conjunction with a primary treatment).

As with any supplement, whether vitamins, minerals, herbal or chemical products, consult with your doctor before you start taking an herbal supplement. There may be health risks associated with use of any supplement, including interactions with medications that you are taking and negative effects associated with existing health conditions you may have. Your doctor is in the best position to determine the proper and safe dosage for any supplement.


Willow bark

Bark from the willow tree (Salix alba) contains salicin, a chemical closely related to the acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin). Willow bark preparations have traditionally been used to treat pain associated with osteoarthritis and well-designed studies have shown willow bark extracts (available in capsule form) to be effective for this purpose. Willow bark extracts have also been used to treat pain associated with rheumatic conditions, including RA. However, there have been few studies evaluating their use in RA. Willow bark should be avoided by patients who are allergic to salicylates (the active metabolite of aspirin). It should also not be taken with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and should be used with caution in patients with gastrointestinal problems (ulcers), diabetes, high blood pressure, and liver function problems. Willow bark extract should be used with caution in patients who are receiving beta-blockers, diuretics, phenytoin (Dilantin), probenecid, spironolactone, valproic acid, or methotrexate. It should be avoided by women who are pregnant or nursing.1,2



Capsaicin is a colorless substance found in members of the pepper family. It is the ingredient that gives hot peppers their hotness and is used in topical creams to relieve muscle stiffness and pain. Capsaicin (applied topically) activates nociceptors (the receptive ending of sensory neurons on the surface of the body). The substance has been well studied and there is strong evidence showing its effectiveness in the relief of pain, especially lower back pain. It may take capsaicin creams several weeks to achieve full effect.1,3



Fennel is a plant native to Mediterranean region. It has been used for centuries in Europe and Asia medicinally (especially as a tea) to treat various conditions, including colic in infants, constipation, nausea, and pain during menstruation. At this time, use of fennel for relief of pain and inflammation in arthritis and other inflammatory diseases is based on the theory that phytochemicals contained within this herb have the ability to block the activation of a protein associated with B-cells (a white blood cell involved in the immune system), thereby providing relief of inflammation and associated pain.4



Burdock is used orally and topically to treat wide range of disorders, from dermatologic conditions to diabetes. It has as anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties and has been used traditionally to relieve pain associated with arthritis (especially back pain). Currently, there is limited evidence to support the use of burdock root preparations in patients with RA.5

Griffonia simplicifolia (5-HTP)


The seeds of the plant Griffonia simplicifolia are a source for 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) that is used in the body to produce the neurotransmitter serotonin, which plays a key role in the transport of signals between neurons in the nervous system. As an herbal supplement, there is some evidence that 5-HTP may be effective as an analgesic and may relieve anxiety and improve sleep. 5-HTP should be used with caution with other medications including antidepressants and sleep aids due to the potential for interactions. 5-HTP should not be used without the approval of your doctor during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.1

Read more in Part 2!

Written by: Jonathan Simmons | Last reviewed: September 2013.
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