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Chinese Herbs for Rheumatoid Arthritis

herbs on white background

Certain Chinese herbs for rheumatoid arthritis are well-researched. One in particular, known as thunder god vine (Tripterygium wilfordii), came under scrutiny in a study reported by the Annals of Internal Medicine with favorable results. An overview of Chinese herbs for rheumatoid arthritis yields some herbs that may be familiar to you as well as many combinations of herbs thought to work together to help the symptoms of this disease.

An Overview of Chinese Herbs for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the body mistakenly attacks the joints and surrounding tissues. It may strike at any age, unlike osteoarthritis which typically affects people over age 50. Rheumatoid arthritis affects more women than men and is more likely to create pain in the joints of the upper body, such as the hands and spine. There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis. Pain medication and other medications aimed at countering the immune system attack may be prescribed to manage symptoms, but they do not cure the disease.

Chinese Medicine and Arthritis

Chinese healers identified the two major types of arthritis many centuries ago, and wrote extensively about treating rheumatoid arthritis. The Chinese medicine system uses both herbs and hands-on techniques such as acupuncture to stimulate meridians or energy points on the body. Understanding qi, the life force or energy flow of the body, and how it is affected by healing techniques, herbs, foods and more is an important part of the Chinese healing strategy.

Chinese Herbs

The herbs recommended for rheumatoid arthritis tend to be herbs known for stimulating qi or chi through the meridians. There are 31 formulas found in Chinese medical texts used to treat the major types of arthritis and the underlying problems thought to cause it. Herbs that appear in many of the formulas and one that may be familiar to you include:

  • Astragalus: Astragalus is known as an immune system tonic and an energy builder.
  • Cinnamon: Cinnamon has been in the news lately because of its many useful healing properties. In arthritis formulas, cinnamon bark extracts are thought to be warming and improve circulation.
  • Ginseng: Ginseng is also a tonic herb, thought to improve circulation and energy levels.
  • Licorice: Licorice is thought to help all the ingredients in the herbal formulas work together. It also has a strong anti-inflammatory action.

A complete discussion of the approach to rheumatoid arthritis from the Chinese herbal perspective may be found on ITM Online, along with notes and ingredients for the 31 formulas.

Thunder God Vine

Western research tends to isolate one variable and research its effects rather than take into account the action or activity of multiple variables. Researchers prefer to investigate one herb rather than formulas with multiple herbs. In the research literature on Chinese herbs, for example, there are many studies pointing to the efficacy of one particular herb called thunder god vine.


Web MD reported in August 2009 that new research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine demonstrate that participants in a study taking the Chinese herb thunder god vine showed greater improvement in rheumatoid arthritis symptoms than those taking a prescription anti-inflammatory medication. Thunder god vine appears to fight inflammation and suppress the immune system.

Unfortunately, according to the National Center for Alternative and Complimentary Medicine, thunder god vine can produce severe side effects. It may cause infertility in men, reproductive problems in women, severe skin rashes, diarrhea and stomach upset. Due to the severity of reported side effects it has been concluded that the risks of taking the herb outweigh the benefits.

Other Helps for Arthritis Sufferers

If you'd like to try Chinese herbs for rheumatoid arthritis, your best option is to make an appointment with a Chinese medical doctor or a naturopath well versed in the Chinese herbal medicine system. He or she will assess your overall health, health history and problem and may recommend herbs, dietary changes, exercises or other treatments to improve mobility, ease pain, and calm the immune system response.

If you're on prescription medication for rheumatoid arthritis, never stop taking your medicine abruptly to try alternative therapies. Talk to your doctor first and fully disclose any alternative treatments to your doctor. Some herbs may interact with prescription medications, affect medical test results, or cause side effects. Your doctor needs to know about all the herbs and supplements you are taking.

Chinese Herbs for Rheumatoid Arthritis