Can Devil's Claw Help Ease Your Pain?

Martin Harvey/Photolibrary/Getty Images

A plant native to the Kalahari desert in southern Africa, devil's claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) was named for its long, tuberous roots that resemble claws. It has been used in traditional African medicine for centuries for concerns such as pain, arthritis, indigestion, and skin conditions.

Why Do People Use Devil's Claw?

Devil's claw contains harpagosides, part of a class of compounds known as iridoid glycosides. Harpagosides have been shown to possess anti-inflammatory properties. 

Since inflammation is linked to some forms of pain, some people use devil's claw to decrease pain from the following conditions:

It has also been used for fibromyalgia, sciatica, nerve pain, gout, and for symptoms of Lyme disease.

The Benefits of Devil's Claw: Can It Really Help?

There is currently a lack of clinical trials testing the effects of devil's claw. However, some preliminary evidence suggests that devil's claw may offer certain benefits. 

1) Osteoarthritis

Although clinical trials on the use of devil's claw for osteoarthritis is limited, several small studies indicate that the herb may be helpful. For example, a study published in the journal Joint Bone Spine in 2000 compared six 435 mg capsules of powdered devil's claw extract a day (which provides about 60 mg per day of harpagosides) with 100 mg a day of a European osteoarthritis drug called diacerhein in 122 patients with osteoarthritis of the knee or hip. After four months, devil's claw was as effective as diacerhein at relieving pain, improving mobility, and reducing the need for backup medication (such as anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs). 

2) Back Pain

A review published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews in 2014 examined previously published trials on the use of herbs for non-specific low back pain. For this report, researchers concluded that devil's claw (standardized to 50 mg or 100 mg harpagosides) seem to reduce pain better than a placebo and may reduce the use of medication. The researchers noted, however, that the evidence was of moderate quality at best. 

Possible Side Effects

As with any supplement, the safety of long-term or high-dose supplementation isn't fully understood.

Several cases of gastrointestinal bleeding associated with the use of devil's claw have been reported. Studies have also found other gastrointestinal side effects including stomach upset and pain. Tinnitus (ringing in the ears), headache, allergic reactions, and high blood pressure have been reported.

Given that the herb has been linked to the above gastrointestinal disorders and may interact with many drugs, it's important to exercise caution and consult your doctor before taking it. It may cause health problems. People with gastric or duodenal ulcers, GERD, and other conditions affecting the upper gastrointestinal tract shouldn't use it.

Pregnant and nursing women and children shouldn't take devil's claw supplements. The herb is believed to trigger uterine contractions.

Animal studies have noted adverse events such as reductions in blood sugar, changes in blood pressure, and enhanced action of GABA in the brain. It has also been noted that devil's claw has the potential to inhibit kidney function. 


Keeping chronic pain under control is an ongoing challenge. If you live with pain, you may be searching for solutions and have heard about devil's claw. Although some people find supplements helpful, there hasn't been enough evidence from high-quality clinical trials to show that it's safe and effective to use to manage chronic pain. If you're still thinking of trying it, be sure to talk with your health care provider to weigh the pros and cons and discuss whether it's appropriate for you. 

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
  • Allard T, Wenner T, Greten HJ, Efferth T. Mechanisms of herb-induced nephrotoxicity. Curr Med Chem. 2013;20(22):2812-9.
  • Leblan D, Chantre P, Fournié B. 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. 2000;67(5):462-7.
  • Oltean H, Robbins C, van Tulder MW, Berman BM, Bombardier C, Gagnier JJ. Herbal medicine for low-back pain. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014 Dec 23;(12):CD004504.