An Asian remedy called the “thunder god vine” could rival traditional treatments for RA.

To manage the pain and swelling of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), medication and physical therapy are usually the recommended course of treatment. But a new study from Peking Union Medical College Hospital and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing affirms the healing powers of herbal arthritis remedies that the Chinese have sworn by for centuries.

Research published in the journal Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases shows that the traditional Chinese herbal remedy Tripterygium wilfordii Hook F (TwHF) was more effective at relieving joint pain and swelling than methotrexate, a disease-modifying antirheumatic drug (DMARD) commonly prescribed to RA patients.

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But when it comes to the ultimate pain relief, a combination may be better than only one drug. Combining TwHF and methotrexate had the most positive effect on the RA patients in the study, making for a potent mix of ancient and modern medicine.

TwHF is renowned for its healing capabilities and is being investigated for its possible impact on other autoimmune diseases and certain cancers. Also called the “thunder god vine,” TwHF contains hundreds of compounds, some of which can reduce joint pain and inflammation. However, its benefits are mixed, because some of its compounds can cause harm by suppressing the immune system. The medicinal portion of the vine is extracted from the root of the plant.

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In the study, 207 patients were randomly assigned to one of three treatment groups: those who received a 12.5 mg dose of methotrexate once a week, those who received a 20 mg dose of TwHF three times a week, and those who used both over the 24-week study period.

The researchers wanted to know which form of treatment would help patients reach an ACR 50 response, a rating that reflects a 50 percent improvement in a number of criteria, including pain and disability, as defined by the American College of Rheumatology.

Of the patients who finished the entire 24-week trial, those who received the combination treatment experienced the highest levels of improvement, with 77 percent of those treated with a combination reaching an ACR 50 response. Fifty-five percent of those treated with TwHF alone and 46.5 percent of those treated with methotrexate alone also reached an ACR 50 response.

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TwHF is nothing new in Chinese medicine, and the compound is already approved for RA treatment in China. However, herbal remedies are not always as effective as they are reported to be, and they can be dangerous when used without medical supervision.

The possible side effects of TwHF should be taken into account, especially by women who are considering pregnancy. In the study, researchers noted no more significant side effects from the herbal remedy than from methotrexate, although women who used TwHF did experience slightly higher rates of irregular periods than those who were not treated with the root extract.

The researchers recommend TwHF for postmenopausal women and those who are not interested in giving birth.