Got a Pain in the Knee? This Herb May Help

Osteoarthritis in the knees causes stiffness and pain that can significantly limit a person’s ability to exercise or carry out their usual daily activities. New research shows that a complementary therapy known as pine bark extract may be added to the medications and lifestyle changes that are the standard treatment for osteoarthritis symptoms.

Osteoarthritis, the most common joint condition among middle-aged people and seniors, according to the American College of Rheumatology, is caused by cartilage breakdown, usually in the hands, hips, and knees. People who suffer from osteoarthritis may experience pain, joint stiffness, or decreased functioning of a joint.

While there is no known cure, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) or acetaminophen are commonly used to treat the pain. However, medications don’t always fully relieve osteoarthritis pain, and long-term use of pain-relievers may result in side effects, so researchers are evaluating complementary therapies to improve symptoms and reduce the need for medications.

Pine bark as a complementary therapy

In a recent study, 100 men and women with mild to moderate osteoarthritis were randomly assigned to take 50 mg of pine bark extract (Pycnogenol) three times a day with meals (a total of 150 mg per day) or placebo for three months. Participants continued to take their usual medications and used questionnaires to rate their pain intensity before, during, and after the study.

People in the pine bark extract group experienced significant relief of pain and stiffness compared with the placebo group. Nearly 40% of the people who took pine bark were able to use less pain medications, and no one in this group increased their pain medication. In the placebo group, 8% decreased their use of pain medications and 10% increased their medication.

“Pycnogenol offers an interesting alternative to treatment of early knee [osteoarthritis] with NSAIDs or analgesics because of its low rate of unwanted effects and its efficacy,” said Peter Cisar from the Department of Orthopedics, Comenius University School of Medicine, Bratislava, Slovakia. “As a concomitant supplement, Pycnogenol may spare the use of NSAIDs, thus reducing unwanted effects.”

Pine bark extract has anti-inflammatory effects and may work by reducing inflammation in the joints. Further research is needed to determine the safety and efficacy of pine bark extract in osteoarthritis treatment.

Find relief through healthy habits

Attention to lifestyle behaviors is a crucial step for improving joint pain. Consider these important tips for improving osteoarthritis symptoms:

• Lose the extra weight: Excess weight puts a strain on joints and can increase symptoms. If you are overweight, see a doctor or other professional to help you create a safe, healthy weight-loss program for long-term results.

• Exercise daily: Regular exercise is critical for keeping joints mobile and pain-free. Don’t overdo it, though, as too much exercise can make symptoms worse.

• Eat right: Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables to get the recommended daily amount of vitamins and minerals, and drink plenty of water to maximize joint health.

• Reduce stress: Stress can worsen pain, so stay relaxed through calming activities or mind-body therapies such as meditation, yoga, or tai chi.

(Phytother Res 2008;22:1087–92)

Jane Hart, MD

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