Soothing Back Pain with Devil's Claw?

back pain
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Devil's claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) is sometimes used as an alternative treatment for back pain, one of the most widespread medical problems in the United States. An herb native to southern Africa, it's commonly used in alternative medicine for its pain-relieving properties. When taken for the treatment of back pain, devil's claw is said to reduce pain-associated inflammation as well as promote relaxation of the skeletal muscles.

Why Is Devil's Claw Sometimes Used For Back Pain?

Devil's claw contains iridoid glycosides, a class of compounds found to reduce inflammation in scientific studies.  Since inflammation is closely linked to the development of some forms of back pain, use of anti-inflammatory compounds is considered beneficial for back pain management. 

One type of iridoid glycoside found at high levels in devil's claw, a compound called harpagoside, is thought to play a key role in the herb's potentially back-pain-relieving effects.

You can learn more about the link between inflammation and chronic pain here.

Related: 4 Ways to Fight Inflammation Naturally

The Science Behind Devil's Claw and Back Pain

Although research on the use of devil's claw in treatment of back pain is fairly limited, some studies indicate that the herb may be helpful for back pain relief. For example, the authors of a report published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2004 reviewed four previously published clinical trials testing the use of devil's claw among people with low back pain and found "moderate evidence" for the herb's effectiveness as a short-term treatment strategy.

The available studies on devil's claw and back pain include a preliminary study published in Phytotherapy Research in 2001. For the study, 130 people (all of whom had suffered from back pain for at least six months) were treated twice a day with tablets containing devil's claw extract.

After eight weeks of treatment, the 117 patients completing the study showed a significant improvement in back pain symptoms (as well as in mobility of the affected areas of their spine).

While the study concluded that devil's claw "appears to be an effective plant alternative for the treatment of chronic back pain," the authors note that further research is needed to determine the herb's therapeutic value.


Devil's claw is possibly safe for most adults when consumed correctly and in appropriate doses for up to a year, according to the National Institutes of Health. Use of the herb is associated with a number of side effects, including:

  • abdominal pain
  • changes in blood pressure
  • diarrhea
  • headache 
  • menstrual problems
  • nausea
  • vomiting

There's also some concern that use of devil's claw may be harmful to people with cardiovascular problems, gallstones, or stomach ulcers. In addition, it's crucial to take caution when using devil's claw in combination with diabetes medications.

Keep in mind that supplements haven't been tested for safety and due to the fact that dietary supplements are largely unregulated, the content of some products may differ from what is specified on the product label.

Also, the safety of supplements in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and those with medical conditions or who are taking medications has not been established. You can get tips on using supplements here, but if you're considering the use of devil's claw, talk with your primary care provider first. Self-treating and avoiding standard medical care may have serious consequences.

Alternatives to Devil's Claw for Back Pain Relief

Like devil's claw, herbal remedies such as white willow bark and ginger show promise as a natural treatment for back pain.

Additionally, there's some evidence that use of capsaicin cream may provide back pain relief.

Furthermore, alternative therapies like acupuncture, chiropractic, massage therapy, the Alexander technique, tai chi, and yoga appear to benefit people with back pain.

Some research also suggests that maintaining optimal levels of vitamin D may help protect against back pain. 

Beyond Back Pain: Other Uses for Devil's Claw

In addition to possibly easing back pain, devil's claw may aid in the treatment of such pain-causing conditions as osteoarthritis and migraines.


Chrubasik S1, Junck H, Breitschwerdt H, Conradt C, Zappe H. "Effectiveness of Harpagophytum extract WS 1531 in the treatment of exacerbation of low back pain: a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study." Eur J Anaesthesiol. 1999 Feb;16(2):118-29.

Chrubasik S1, Künzel O, Thanner J, Conradt C, Black A. "A 1-year follow-up after a pilot study with Doloteffin for low back pain." Phytomedicine. 2005 Jan;12(1-2):1-9.

Chrubasik S1, Thanner J, Künzel O, Conradt C, Black A, Pollak S. "Comparison of outcome measures during treatment with the proprietary Harpagophytum extract doloteffin in patients with pain in the lower back, knee or hip." Phytomedicine. 2002 Apr;9(3):181-94.

Gagnier JJ1, Chrubasik S, Manheimer E. "Harpgophytum procumbens for osteoarthritis and low back pain: a systematic review." BMC Complement Altern Med. 2004 Sep 15;4:13.

Göbel H1, Heinze A, Ingwersen M, Niederberger U, Gerber D. "Effects of Harpagophytum procumbens LI 174 (devil's claw) on sensory, motor und vascular muscle reagibility in the treatment of unspecific back pain." Schmerz. 2001 Feb;15(1):10-8.

Laudahn D1, Walper A. "Efficacy and tolerance of Harpagophytum extract LI 174 in patients with chronic non-radicular back pain." Phytother Res. 2001 Nov;15(7):621-4.

National Institutes of Health. "Devil's claw: MedlinePlus Supplements." October 2014.

Vlachojannis J1, Roufogalis BD, Chrubasik S. " Systematic review on the safety of Harpagophytum preparations for osteoarthritic and low back pain." Phytother Res. 2008 Feb;22(2):149-52.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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