Chinese herbal remedy works for rheumatoid arthritis

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health say thunder god vine, a Chinese herbal remedy, which has been used in China for centuries to treat a variety of inflammatory diseases, may benefit people with rheumatoid arthritis.

A study, recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, compared the efficacy and safety of a Chinese herb called thunder god vine [Tripterygium wilfordii Hook F (TwHF), also known as “lei gong teng”], and a conventional disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drug (DMARD) used for rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers randomly assigned 121 people with rheumatoid arthritis to take either 60 milligrams of the Chinese herb three times a day or 1 gram of sulfasalazine twice a day for 24 weeks.

Nearly half of the participants dropped out before the study was complete. But after 24 weeks of treatment, researchers found that a more people in the Chinese herbal remedy group experienced at least 20% improvement on a standard measure of rheumatoid arthritis symptoms compared with the sulfasalazine group.

Researcher Raphaela Goldbach-Mansky, MD and colleagues say the study was too short to show if thunder god vine also helped slow the progression of joint destruction from rheumatoid arthritis. But if further studies confirm these results in larger numbers of people, “thunder god vine may provide an affordable natural treatment option for rheumatoid arthritis.”

Comment: A much older study authored by Peter Lipsky also demonstrated the anti-inflammatory benefits of thunder god vine [Lipsky, P. E. and Tao, X. L. A potential new treatment for rheumatoid arthritis: thunder god vine. Semin.Arthritis Rheum. 1997;26(5):713-723]… so this isn’t really news.

In fact, it’s more of a curiosity than anything else.  The goal in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is to help with both symptoms as well as disease progression. Sulfasalazine, the drug used as a comparator in the NIH study, doesn’t have good anti-inflammatory properties.  As a disease-modifier it’s pretty lame also.

Nonetheless, the take-home message is this:  Some herbal remedies do work for symptoms and they’re worth a try.  In the past, physicians, particularly academic types, would debunk these types of therapies as “snake-oil.”  As we learn more about the natural healing effects of herbs… and the natural healing powers we all possess (Examples would be PRP and stem cells), I think our ability to treat arthritis will improve significantly… and with fewer side-effects.   [A word of caution… don’t forget or nglect effective conventional therapies! ] NW.

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