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What Are the Medical Uses of Harpagophytum?

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  • Written By: Maggie J. Hall
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 20 November 2016
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The Harpagophytum procumbens plant belongs to the sesame family and grows in South Africa, where natives use the roots to relieve both inflammation and pain. Herbalists also use oral preparations for reducing fevers and treating kidney or liver ailments. The African people combine the roots and tubers into a topical ointment for treating boils, ulcers, and other skin lesions. Other names for the plant include devil's claw, grapple plant, and wood spider, because of the unusual appendages of the fruit, which attach to passing animals who spread the seeds. Beginning in the 20th century, Europeans returned home with the medicinal plants and used them for appetite restoration and heartburn relief.

Studies indicate Harpagophytum contains harpagoside and beta sitosterol, and research suggests that the medicinal properties of the plant achieve broader results than non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. The plant extract triggers the release of cytokines, proteins that reduce inflammation. Harpagophytum also interferes with the production of cyclo-oxygnase (COX) and lipoxygenase, which contribute to inflammation and swelling. The studies suggest that these plant extracts provide relief similar to COX inhibiting medications. The British Herbal Pharmacopoeia also states that the herb can act as a diuretic, a drug that causes the elimination body fluids, and may also act as a sedative.

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In Europe, patients use Harpagophytum for the treatment of pain and inflammation associated with arthritis, headaches, and lower back pain. Herbal companies manufacture it in capsule and tablet form. Liquid extracts and topical ointments, containing the active ingredient, harpagoside are also available. Oral forms of the extract provide anywhere between 50 and 100 milligrams of the active ingredient. Physicians do not recommended that the herb be given to children, and health care providers advise against using it before consulting with a professional because of possible medication interactions.

Taking Hapragophytum together with aspirin, warfarin or other medications that interfere with blood clotting may cause an increased risk of abnormal bleeding. Some physicians believe the preparation affects blood pressure and heart rate, requiring cautious use in patients with cardiac or circulatory problems. Some reports indicate that the plant can reduce blood sugar, which poses a threat of hypoglycemic reactions in persons using diabetic medications. The active ingredients of the plant may also interfere with the medications commonly prescribed for gastritis or ulcers, as harpagoside typically increases gastric acid secretions.

Substances containing Harpagophytum may increase bile production, posing a risk for patients diagnosed with gall bladder disease. The liver breaks down and converts medications, including Harpagophytum. Taking the herb simultaneously with other medications may decrease or increase this metabolic process, affecting the effectiveness of other medications or increasing the likelihood of side effects.

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