Devil's Claw - Properties and benefits of the Harpagophytum

Table of contents

    1. What is the Devil's Claw?
    2. The main components of the Devil's Claw
    3. The Devil's Claw as an anti-inflammatory agent, its most brilliant property
    4. A proper list of other benefits of the devil's claw for health
    5. How to take the Devil's Claw
      1. Topical VS Oral administration
      2. Combinations with harpagophytum that can be interesting
    6. Therapeutic effects of the Harpagophytum
      1. Gout
      2. Muscle weakness
      3. Back pain
      4. Arthritis
      5. Arthrosis
      6. Torticollis and DOMS
      7. Low back pain
      8. Sprains, contusions...
    7. Side Effects and contraindications of the Devil's Claw
    8. Contraindications of the Devil's Claw

The Devil's Claw is one of the plants whose origins are deeply rooted in the sub-Saharan Africa, more specifically in the area of the Kalahari desert, which is known as Namibia nowadays.

What is the Devil's Claw?

Harpagophytum procumbens, which is its scientific name, is probably more commonly known as the Devil’s Claw and its fruit can reach around 20cm of length. Occasionally, it is also known as the Windhoej root due to its geographical origin.

There are two parallel legends that provide an explanation for the devilish name of this plant: on the one hand, it is due to the aspect of its natural protrusions that resemble hooks from which the fruit grows. On the other hand, it is due to the fact that the native people observed how these claws sank on the backs of some animals, which produced an intense pain that made them move as if they were dancing the “dance of the Devil”.

The structure of the devil’s claw is divided in what we could call the primary root, which is a tuberous and lengthy figure, and the secondary roots, which also look like a tube, which grow from the primary root and that clearly resemble avocados. These last ones, which have an intense bitter taste, are the ones that have the medicinal effect which is used for the treatment with this plant.

The devil's claw is an herbaceous phanerogam plant (which is the way the sap vessels are called and which are the ones that produce the seeds), of perennial leaves, and it belongs to the herbal family of the Pedalicaeae, to which sesame also belongs. Its leaves are firm and fleshy, and their flowers are of a pinkish tone.

The tubers are soft and their pulp is of a white-yellowish color, and they are also bitter. Due to its high aqueous content that reaches almost a 90%, they must be dried through their fragmentation, after which they become hardened pieces with a curve shape and of a brown color, and they preserve their bitter flavor.

The root of this bush, which can even reach more than a meter and a half of length, has been used since ancient times by the native people from Southeast Africa and the Madagascar Island to relieve the pain of giving birth and to use some of its therapeutic properties, like treating arthritis.

A determining factor of the physiology of this bush when compared to other plants is that it is highly resistant to adverse meteorological conditions and plagues, which is due to the fact that they produce a substance that allows them to resist high temperatures, the attacks of parasites that inhabit the desert, and the action of ultraviolet rays.

Nowadays, the devil’s claw is one of the most protected products in Botswana, the South-African Republic, and Namibia, which is the reason why their harvest and exportation are subject to strict controls and limitations. It has also been included in the CITES list (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

The main components of the Devil's Claw

The harpagophytum procumbens is rich in components that have diverse therapeutic properties that improve our health, which are enhanced by other active ingredients that are produced by this plant. This is why the substance that is produced by the devil’s claw is a true treasure among the field of natural medicine, as it has been confirmed by several specialists on this matter.

Not in vain, at the beginning of the last century, several research lines were started that discovered around fifty organic compounds with biological activity to reduce the pain and some health problems. The ones that belonged to the iridoid group were a majority and, within this group, the monoterpenic glucosides, which made up a 3% of the dry matter of the devil's claw plant. Among them, the most important one is the harpagoside, an active ingredient that is included in the pharmacopoeia and which is absolutely responsible for the healing properties of the Harpagophytum procumbens, while being the best anti-inflammatory element extracted from a medicinal plant.

People use the harpagosides to fix the problems caused by the pain related to an inflammation, like arthritis, and to effectively improve the health through a natural herbal treatment.

Precisely, due to the massive demand of the properties of the devil’s claw among natural remedies that exists nowadays, almost without geographical limits, its farming has been progressively adapted in order to find a production that will be enough to sustain the industrial demands of the laboratories that produce its diverse formats.

The different substances that configure the medicinal power of the devil's claw can be listed in the following way:

  • Iridoid glycosides: harpagoside, procumbide, harpagide, and free cinnamic acid, among others.
  • Phenolic glycosides: acteoside, verbascoside, and isoacteoside.
  • Phytosterols: beta-sitosterol and stigmasterol.
  • Free and esterified sterols.
  • Flavonoids, such as kenferol.
  • Triterpenic acids, such as oleanolic acid.
  • Stachyose (sugar made of fructose, glucose, and galactose).
  • Caffeic acid
  • Essential aromatic oils

We want to point out that we call glycosides to the formations of carbohydrates (substances that are formed by chains of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms), which chemically react to water by releasing these components outside the devil's claw, which guarantee its resistance and development in such a hostile environment.

The active ingredients group are called iridoids (sometimes also known as glycoiridoids) which have a defining feature that consists on producing the inhibition of one of the main substances that intervenes in inflammatory processes, prostaglandins; this effect is achieved by reducing the permeability of the cell membranes and by blocking the action of the synthetase-prostaglandin enzyme.

This medicinal plant has a renowned and remarkable variety of beneficial properties for the organism. To put it briefly we could name the digestive or eupeptic one, the anti-inflammatory, analgesic, choleretic, detoxifying, anti-pyretic, anti-diabetic, appetite stimulant, hypoglycemic, or antioxidant properties. In one way or another, the devil's claw is one of the most requested plants to reduce back pain.

The Devil's Claw can be combined with other substances in order to mutually enhance their properties, such as in the case of products that contain hyaluronic acid or collagen, which are both renowned stimulants with regenerative properties of cell tissues, specially the cartilaginous and connective tissues. In order to consume the harpagophytum with other drugs, it is necessary to know the side effects and contraindications of this plant, which is why are going to review and read some information about this later on this page, so keep on reading!

Specifically, the synergy consists on the fact that the devil's claw reduces the pain caused by an inflammation, while hyaluronic acid produces an stimulus in the extracellular matrix in order to increase the rate of cell division of the fibroblasts. These are the cells that make up the most part of the connective tissue, which are suspended on a collagen matrix that they produce. From these features result the extraordinary benefits not only for the elasticity and firmness of the soft tissues but also for the synovial capsule of the joints.

Harpagophytum Anti-inflammatory

Another highly valued function of the devil's claw, which is partly related to joint health, is its increase in the diuresis, which facilitates the excretion of excessive uric acid in the blood. Otherwise, high levels of this compound can deteriorate the integrity of the joint due to the phenomenon of crystallization which causes it (which is the reason why it is used as one the plants with the best calming effects for intense pain that is common in gout). That said, it is clear that at the same time it has the ability to act as a purifying element of the organism, since apart from contributing to the excretion of urates, it also excretes a lot of toxic substances through the urine. So it behaves simultaneously as a preventive tool for kidney stones.

The Devil's Claw as an anti-inflammatory agent, its most brilliant property

The Royal Spanish Pharmacopoeia defines the harpagophytum root as a group of secondary tuberous roots, cut and dried, from the Harpagophytum procumbens species, while pointing out that the minimal content of harpagoside should reach at least 1.2%, based on the weight of the dried drug.

Due to its triple anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and anti-rheumatic effect, using a formula made of the harpagophytum plant tends to be a good remedy with herbal properties to treat muscle-rheumatic pains, tendinitis, lumbostiatic pain, and the effects caused by the degeneration or the inflammation of the joints, such as arthrosis and arthritis- osteoarthritis. In these cases, a tonic is very well tolerated by the organism, and it always has medicinal properties that help to combat the effects of these organic alterations. The harpagophytum procumbens is one of the most used plants as a natural anti-inflammatory in our society.

Properties and benefits of the Devil's Claw

On the other hand, the German Agency of Healthcare has made an statement that favors the use of the devil’s claw root with a double objective: analgesic and anti-inflammatory benefits for sportspeople who usually suffer joint pain in their knees, ankles, and shoulders, as well as its use in the processes that are mostly related to the connection of the muscles (tendons and ligaments), which are also frequent in this group. They can use Devil's Claw supplements in order to compensate for this.

In contrast, it is interesting to take into account these last anatomic elements: muscles, tendons, and ligaments. They exert a mechanic traction over the synovial capsules of the joints that can even result in their inflammation. In these situations, the harpagophytum is one of the plants with more properties for the human health, that provides an interesting natural resource in order to relieve these ailments by improving the recovery in rehabilitation sessions. It also provides relief from its analgesic properties, since these tissues have abundant nerve endings that produce a lot of pain.

Much has been written about the biochemical foundations of this property and about the mechanism of action through which it is carried out, which is probably through these two inhibition pathways:

  • From the synthesis of some substances that act as a mediators of the inflammation, more specifically the prostaglandins PGE2 and nitric oxide.
  • From the release of cytokines that stimulate the inflammatory reactions that are mainly synthesized by lymphocytes and macrophages (two cell lines of white cells), such as interleukins IL-1, IL-2, IL-6, and IL-8.

The anti-inflammatory activity of the harpagophytum is mainly supported by a triad of components: the harpagoside, the verbascoside, and the 8-p-coumaroyl-harpagide or simply harpagide. When it comes to the phenolic compounds and flavonoids, they can favorably improve the antioxidant task of certain enzymes, which contributes to limit the domino effect of the formation of the free radicals in the cell membranes, with the consequent reduction of the risk of irreparable cell damage.

Harpagophytum Natural Anti-inflammatory

Scientists have looked for information in different scientific studies and they have reached the conclusion that the efficacy of the several formats of harpagophytum supplements for the treatment of rheumatic disorders is similar to that of the non-stereoidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen. You can even combine both elements, the natural one which comes from plants, and the synthetic one in order to optimize their efficacy.

All the treatments or supplements should use at least 9mg of harpagoside, since it is the element with more anti-inflammatory properties if we want to achieve the maximum efficacy for our health in those cases of rheumatoid arthritis, arthrosis at an initial stage, and gout pain. Its use should be prolonged between two and three months.

If the aim is to relieve the intense pains that are caused both by arthrosis and a disease of the cartilage, we need to use more than 50 mg of harpagoside combined with 90 mg of iridoid glycosides daily. Both active ingredients also work very well with hyaluronic acid or chondroitin sulfate, producing a synergy.

There are a lot of studies that provide information about the harpagophytum and that have compared its efficacy with that of using common medications for the treatment of arthrosis and low back pain. For example, if we review the amount of harpagoside and compare it to a medicine, it is known that 60 mg/per day of harpagoside for 4 months provides the same effect than 12 of rofecoxib in the case of low back pain, while 57 of harpagoside equals 100mg/per day of diacerein regarding hip and knee arthrosis in treatments of the same duration.

To illustrate this point, we could add that at the beginning of this century, Laudahn and Walper and their group of collaborators carried out a study with 120 patients with chronic back pain which did not originate in the vertebral column in order to obtain more information about the effects of harpagophytum procumbens.

From this study they concluded that

using 480 mg of Harpagophytum procumbens supplements daily makes it possible to control this disorder with an excellent tolerance.

These conclusions are reinforced by another study, this one carried out by Chrubasik S, where he compared the harpagophytum plant extract with a substance that acts as an specific inhibitor of the cyclo-oxygenase-2 enzyme (COX-2) in 44 patients. With this review, he reached the conclusion that the harpagophytum has the ability to mitigate a chronic and non-specific back pain with efficacy and safety.

There are few side effects and contraindications that can be found in the harpagophytum.

A proper list of other benefits of the devil's claw for health

Since it is a good antipyretic element, its use can be combined in cases where it is needed to lower the temperature or fever.

Harpagophytum Joint Health

The properties of the devil’s claw have other medicinal uses, which increases the demand of products that contain harpagophytum procumbens in the market.

One of the most remarkable properties of the harpagophytum is its ability to encourage the reduction of cholesterol, which positively affects the circulatory system which lowers the risk of suffering cardiovascular diseases.

It increases the production of bile in the liver due to its choleretic effect, which improves the digestion of fats.

In case of suffering intestinal spams, the properties of the harpagophytum help to stop them and, at the same time, they produce a certain laxative effect.

Its content in bitter substances can stimulate the appetite.

At an external level:

  • It can be applied as a wound healer in the form of bandages which have to be soaked in the extract in order to heal ulcers and wounds. This process will have to be repeated for several days. 
  • It is a very useful resource to treat acne and skin patches through its topical administration.
  • Apart from what we have mentioned about the locomotive system, the lotion produces an analgesic effect that is effective against the menstrual pain, heartburn, and migraines.

How to take the Devil's Claw

Several Devil’s Claw herbal formulas can be found both at the herbalist’ shop as well as at pharmacies in several formats like extracts, tablets, capsules, creams, and of course, sliced root.

There are several ways to administer this drug, but the one that prevails is the oral administration of capsules or tablets in amounts that logically vary according to the age of the patient and the problem that has to be treated.

The recommended daily amount is 2 or 3 tablets which must be consumed with plenty of water during the meals. You can also prepare an infusion with the sliced harpagophytum root in a cup of warm water, let it settle for a few minutes, then strain it, and it will be ready.

You can also find it as a liquid extract or a tincture that is obtained from its maceration in ethyl alcohol.

Generally, you should follow the dose and information that appears on the recipient or the prospect, since a logical level of trust should be given to the laboratory that is in charge of the manufacturing process, but we are going to provide some approximate numbers in this review:

  • In principle, 3 grams daily.
  • 4 or 6 capsules daily, depending on their composition (500 or 750 mg).
  • 800 mg daily is the most accurate dose for an devil's claw powder extract with a 2.7% of harpagoside.
  • If you like infusions, drink one or two daily.
  • 0.10 – 0.25 ml, three times a day for a liquid extract or tincture.

Topical VS Oral administration

How to take Harpagophytum

Depending on the benefits that we want to obtain and on the health problem that we need to treat, we will choose either oral or topical administration in order to take the devil's claw. We can even combine both treatments in certain situations. In fact, an harpagophytum cream applied externally can be a good remedy to relieve the inflammation and the pain caused by a tendinitis. You just have to apply a moderate amount and massage the area so that it reaches the subcutaneous tissue.

At the same time, consuming harpagophytum in herbal capsules or tablets sets the repairing processes of the organism into motion in order to treat arthrosis, which is the inflammation of the tendons or ligaments.

Using topical administration is always the best choice to treat those cases of problems with the locomotive system, because even with the high safety measures of this product, applying it externally can inhibit the side effects and contraindications of the devil’s claw completely (except for allergic reactions).

Moreover, several studies have been published recently that have provided information that seems to prove how its efficacy increases when it is used topically as an essential oil or cream. The researchers argue that the oral administration stimulates the secretion of gastric juices that hinder its potential.

Combinations with harpagophytum that can be interesting

The Devil’s claw can be perfectly combined with other herbal species when it comes to the treatment of several disorders. Some of these elements are the white willow, marigold, horsetail, cat’s claw, juniper, ginger, star anise, bamboo, narrow strap fern (a fern from Peru) or kava-kava (a plant from Oceania that is related to pepper plants).

Therapeutic effects of the Harpagophytum

The harpagophytum plays an important role in the treatment of these disorders:

Gout

An infusion made of a mixture of harpagophytum, juniper berries, and ash tree bark in equal measures promotes the excretion of uric acid, which is responsible for the pains caused by an acute inflammation of the joints.

Muscle weakness

Combining the devil’s claw and cat’s claw, both in infusions or capsules, regulates the digestions and optimizes the absorption of nutrients.

Back pain

Supplements in capsules made of devil's claw, turmeric powder (a renowned and excellent anti-inflammatory element), and hyaluronic acid have proven to be a good tool to relieve back pain.

Arthritis

A combination of devil's claw and cat’s claw is ideal to relieve the pain in patients who suffer arthritis

Arthrosis

Here we have three possibilities:

  • A pack made of bamboo and other substances that are known for protecting the cartilages, such as collagen, glucosamine, or shark’s cartilage.
  • If it affects the knee, a decoction of ash tree leaves in a bandage tends to provide very good results. You just have to boil a sample of 50g of leaves per liter of water for several minutes.
  • Apply and massage an ointment made of arnica and harpagophytum over the affected area

Torticollis and DOMS

The contractions of the muscles of the neck called torticollis can be properly treated with the consumption of an infusion of harpagophytum, guelder-rose, white willow, and mint leaves or star anise; it mainly acts as a muscle relaxer. It can be useful to treat the delayed onset muscle soreness by adding two tablespoons per liter of water.

Low back pain

In order to have this issue under control without recurring to medications, you just have to prepare an infusion that mixes the following ingredients in equal measures: harpagophytum, narrow strap fern, white willow, and star anise. From this mixture, you have to take a tablespoon per cup of water and let it boil a few minutes. It is advisable to let it settle during the night and to consume it throughout the following morning, prolonging this treatment for one and two months.

Sprains, contusions...

Any self-respecting emergency kit should contain a mix gel of devil’s claw and arnica: which is excellent to relieve sprains, contusions...

You can find a wide range of this elaborations for its use as a dietary supplement on the internet, we advise checking HSNstore out.

Side Effects and contraindications of the Devil's Claw

The use of medicinal plants has become more and more popular in order to reinforce the organism to combat several diseases, or due to its evident benefits for health when it comes to their safety and tolerance in regard to synthetic medicines. However, this must not become an excuse to ignore the possible dangers that these substances can also entail, which is why this page gathers information about the risks of the Devil's Claw.

This is the reason why precautions must be taken and its consumption must always be advised by an specialist.

Generally, the Devil's Claw should be classified as very safe plant and only responsible for minimal side effects as long as its consumption is under control. In spite of this, it is indispensable to follow the advise of the experts and the indications that can be found in the packaging and prospects in order to avoid an exceeding the dose or prolonging the duration of the treatments.

High doses of devil's claw can produce gastric problems which is why it is not suitable for those who suffer from stomach or duodenum ulcers, as well as gallstones. But the truth is that they have only occurred in cases of special susceptibility to these problems, nausea/vomits, diarrhea, and gastric discomfort (heaviness, heartburn…). We could complete this mini-catalog of possible, although improbable, side effects of the devil's claw by mentioning overall discomfort, dizziness, and low levels of sugar in the blood.

Contraindications of the Devil's Claw

Basically, this a list of those situations when the treatment of the devil’s claw is not advised:

  • If you are pregnant or lactating.
  • Children under the age of 6.
  • Regular and elevated consumption of alcohol.
  • Those who suffer from pathological problems such as gastrointestinal ulcers, hypertension, glaucoma, diabetes, and pathologies that affect the heart, liver, and kidneys.
  • It must always be considered that we can be allergic to some of its components

With regard to its possible pharmacological interactions, it should not be consumed at the same time as other anti-coagulant medications such as warfarin, tranquilizers like diazepam, medicines for arrhythmia such as digoxin or beta-blockers and other medicines such as loperamide or omeprazole, because they can interfere in their action and reduce their efficacy, apart from irritating the gastric mucosa.

Moreover, it must also be pointed out that it is not advisable to consume it for a long period of time, since there is still need of evidence that supports its prolonged consumption.

If you want to know more...

The devil’s claw is one of the plants whose origins are deep-rooted in sub-Saharan Africa, more specifically in the zone of the Kalahari desert which is known as Namibia. Harpagophytum procumbens, which is its scientific name, is probably more familiarly known as the Devil’s Claw, whose fruit can reach 20cm of length. Occasionally… Read more

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