by R. Brandon Kime, PharmD Candidate
Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease that causes the breakdown of joints throughout the body due to the body’s immune system attacking these tissues. As the joints degrade, they become less able to support and lubricate the bones that they attach. Eventually, the bones can rub together, causing erosion of the bone and possibly deformity of the joint. This entire process results in a considerable amount pain for those affected, as well as difficulties in day-to-day functioning. Unlike other types of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis can occur in people of all ages. Rheumatoid arthritis is usually treated by prescription drugs that decrease inflammation or decrease immune system activity. Some of these drugs may have significant side effects, including increased chance for infection for those that suppress the immune system, or increased chance for ulcers and bleeding for anti-inflammatory drugs. Physical therapy may also be used to increase joint flexibility and decrease stress and degradation of the joints. One European study estimated the total cost of rheumatoid arthritis in the US as 42 billion euros,1 or over 53 billion dollars.
Plants have been used since ancient times for medicinal purposes,2 and traditional medicine is growing acceptance in developed countries.3 An article written by Al-Nahain and colleagues evaluated the potential of the ginger plant (Zingiber officinale) in treating rheumatoid arthritis.4 The root of the ginger plant is most often used in food because of its unique taste, but it also has several medicinal properties that have been observed. Ginger has been well-studied for its anti-inflammatory effects (it is similar in action to aspirin or ibuprofen).5,6 The plant contains many drug-like compounds that may be useful in either treating rheumatoid arthritis outright or developing new anti-inflammatory drugs.2 One study tested both ginger extract as well as several chemicals isolated from ginger in an animal model of rheumatoid arthritis and found ginger to have “profound antiarthritic efficacy.”7 This means that ginger is capable of treating arthritis on multiple levels. While ginger may have potential in treating arthritis, it would not be without disadvantages. There is a lack of precise dosing information for this application of ginger. Furthermore, since it is considered a dietary supplement insurance companies would be unlikely to cover it.
While “cure” is far too strong of a word at this time, what does all this mean for those struggling with rheumatoid arthritis? First, it gives them a potential option when standard therapies do not work well enough to treat their symptoms. Individuals suffering from the disease can talk to their doctors and discuss whether using or adding a ginger supplement to their regimen could be beneficial in treating their symptoms. Second, it gives them hope for future research to find more effective treatments for rheumatoid arthritis. The Al-Nahain article is optimistic that further research into the chemical functions of ginger components, “may make it possible to stop further progress or even reverse the damage caused by [rheumatoid arthritis].”2 Finally, if new research into ginger prompts further research into the benefits of other substances marketed as dietary supplements, I think that is good for the world of healthcare as a whole. Selecting healthcare products should be based on evidence rather than advertising. I would recommend that consumers become proactive in discovering the benefits of both mainstream and alternative treatments. In this way, consumers can make more informed decisions and progress can be made in treating various diseases.
Has anyone you have known taken a ginger supplement for their rheumatoid arthritis? How well did his or her treatment work?
- Lundkvist J, Kastäng F, Kobelt G. The burden of rheumatoid arthritis and access to treatment: Health burden and costs. The European Journal of Health Economics. 2008;8(, Supplement 2: The Burden of Rheumatoid Arthritis and Patient Access to Treatment):S49-S60.
- Phillipson JD. Phytochemistry and medicinal plants. Phytochemistry. 2001;56(3):237-243.
- World Health Organization. WHO traditional medicine strategy 2002-2005. 2002.
- Al-Nahain A, Jahan R, Rahmatullah M. Zingiber officinale: A potential plant against rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis. 2014;2014:8.
- Grzanna R, Lindmark L, Frondoza CG. Ginger-an herbal medicinal product with broad anti-inflammatory actions. Journal of medicinal food. 2005;8(2):125-132.
- Mascolo N, Jain R, Jain SC, Capasso F. Ethnopharmacologic investigation of ginger (zingiber officinale). J Ethnopharmacol. 1989;27(1–2):129-140.
- Funk JL, Frye JB, Oyarzo JN, Timmermann BN. Comparative effects of two gingerol-containing zingiber officinale extracts on experimental rheumatoid arthritis⊥. J Nat Prod. 2009;72(3):403-407.