What Is Prickly Ash?

Traditionally used to treat joint pain and toothaches

Prickly ash powder, dried bark, tincture

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Prickly ash, commonly referred to as northern prickly ash, is an herbal supplement often used to treat toothache, joint pain, arthritis, circulation problems, and more. Some have even suggested that it has anti-cancer properties. 

Prickly ash plant on a white table
LUHUANFENG / Getty Images

Prickly ash comes from the plant family of the Rutaceae genus. The perennial plant grows as either a shrub or a tree that can grow up to 26 feet in height. The plant has dark brown branches with prickles that are up to a half of an inch long—thus the name prickly ash. 

The twigs of the prickly ash shrub/tree have a strong smell, mimicking that of lemon peel. The small leaf buds are red and woolly, and greenish-yellow flowers appear in spring before their dark green leaves emerge. In late summer the fruit ripens, turning from its original green color to reddish-brown.  

Prickly ash is native to Missouri. It grows in most areas of the state (except for in the Ozarks region), as well as other areas in Eastern North America. It is commonly found in moist ravines, thickets, and woods, as well as upland rocky bluffs and hillsides and open wooded areas. 

There is also an Asian version (which has some of the same properties as prickly ash) called crow prickly ash.

Also Known As

  • Angelica tree
  • Chuan Jiao (traditional Chinese medicine)
  • Clavalier
  • Pepperwood
  • Suterberry
  • Toothache bark
  • Toothache tree
  • Yellow wood
  • Zanthoxylum

History

Historically, many Native American tribes used prickly ash as a medicinal herb. They used an infusion of the bark to treat everything from itchy skin to back pain as well as cramps, fevers, colds, lung conditions, toothaches, sore throats, pain from childbirth, and colic in babies.

In the 19th century, Charles Millspaugh described the use of prickly ash in his book American Herbal Medicine. In it, he identified prickly ash as a remedy for pneumonia, cholera, typhus, typhoid, and more.  

Millspaugh explained in his book, “The action was prompt and permanent... Prickly ash acted like electricity, so sudden and diffusive was its influence over the entire system. I consider the tincture of prickly ash to be superior to any form of medication I know of.”

What Is Prickly Ash Used For?

Prickly ash is commonly used to promote blood flow throughout the body, specifically for the treatment of rheumatism. Rheumatism (including various types of arthritis) is any disease involving pain and swelling or inflammation of the joints, ligaments, and muscles.

Prickly ash is said to help improve rheumatism and alleviate joint pain by inhibiting hormones called prostaglandins that stimulate inflammation.

Prickly ash is said to have numerous functions and benefits:

  • Antidiarrheal agent
  • Antifungal agent
  • Antinauseal agent
  • Antirheumatic properties
  • Appetite stimulant
  • Blood and lymphatic circulation stimulant 
  • Carminative (gas relief)
  • Digestive aid
  • Diaphoretic (induces sweat to reduce fever)
  • Dysentery remedy
  • Hemorrhoid remedy
  • Liniment (an invigorating rub used to reduce muscle pain)
  • Rubefacient (improves blood flow to the small vessels)
  • Tinnitus remedy (reduces ringing in the ears)
  • Tonic (invigorates and strengthens the body)

How It Works

Prickly ash bark contains alkaloids, which are nitrogen-containing plant compounds that cause physiological actions. Examples of alkaloids are morphine, quinine, and more. Prickly ash also contains an alkamide that causes a numbing feeling on the tongue and mouth. 

This may be the reason prickly ash was commonly used for toothaches, although there is inconclusive clinical research evidence to show that prickly ash is safe and effective in relieving tooth pain.

The volatile oils derived from prickly ash contain the highest concentration of alkaloids. They help stimulate tissues resulting in dilatation of the veins and improved circulation.

Prickly ash also has a rubefacient effect. This means that when used on the skin, the volatile oils produce redness, causing dilatation of the capillaries and increased blood flow. 

When taken internally, stimulant volatile oils—such as the oil from prickly ash—have an effect on the digestive and circulatory systems.

Clinical Studies

Although prickly ash has been traditionally used to treat many common maladies, there is very little clinical research evidence to support these claims.

Among the available studies, 2017 research published in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine has shown that prickly ash has antifungal properties that may be beneficial to treating mild fungal infection. Further research is needed.

An older study published in 2001 in Phytotherapy Research reported that northern prickly ash has cytotoxic properties and was able to kill human leukemia cells in a test tube. Despite the finding, there is no evidence that it has the same effect in humans.

Possible Side Effects

There are no known major side effects from the use of prickly ash when used in doses that are recommended. Unlike some herbal remedies, it appears to have low toxicity on the liver.

Prickly ash has been known on rare occasions to cause allergy, including a severe whole-body reaction known as anaphylaxis.

Anaphylaxis is considered a medical emergency. Call 911 or seek emergency care if you develop signs of anaphylaxis, including:

  • Severe rash or hives
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Swelling of the throat or tongue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Chest pain

Interactions and Considerations

There are no known contraindications to the use of prickly ash. But because the herb has not been extensively studied, this doesn't mean that it is 100% safe.

Speak with your healthcare provider before taking any herbal remedy. Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers should avoid the use of prickly ash as a precaution.

People on anticoagulants like Coumadin (warfarin) should avoid the use of prickly ash as it can potentially increase the effects of the blood thinner, causing easy bleeding and bruising.

Prickly ash dried bark
Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Dosage and Preparation

There are no guidelines for the appropriate use of prickly ash in any form. As a general rule, do not use more than the recommended dose indicated by the manufacturer.

Prickly ash bark is sold in capsules, extracts, tinctures, powders, teabags, and wildcrafted dried bark. Prickly ash capsules are readily found online and in some natural supplement stores, often in 400-milligram (mg) doses.

The dried bark and powder are typically used to make teas or decoction. Some herbalists recommend steeping one teaspoon of prickly ash powder or bark in a cup of boiled water for a medicinal tonic.

What to Look For

Quality assurance is difficult with herbal remedies because so few manufacturers submit them for independent testing. The practice is slowly increasing, however, so check the label to see if the product has been tested by an independent certifying body like U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), ConsumerLab, or NSF International.

Certification does not mean that the product works, only that it contains the ingredients on the product label and that no impurities have been found.

Buying herbal products that are certified organic also helps ensure safety, purity, and quality.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can children take prickly ash?
No. There is not enough medical research on the use of prickly ash in children to support any claims of safe use.

Can prickly ash be taken when breastfeeding?
No. Not enough is known about the safe use of prickly ash when breastfeeding to recommend its safe use.

Does prickly ash work well for toothaches?
There are no significant clinical research study results to show evidence that prickly ash is safe or effective in the treatment of toothaches.

A Word From Verywell

Prickly ash is thought by some to have powerful healing benefits. Medical research doesn’t back up many of the claims; however, this doesn’t necessarily mean that prickly ash doesn't work or that it is unsafe. It just means that more research is needed.

However, you should never use prickly ash or any other herbal supplement as a substitute for standard medical care if you have a condition that requires treatment.

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13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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