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Thunder God Vine for Pain?

I have rheumatoid arthritis and have been told that a Chinese herb, thunder god vine, works better than prescription medication for pain. Would this be a worthwhile treatment for me?

Answer (Published 6/30/2014)

Possibly. The most recent study (published in 2014) comparing an extract of thunder god vine (Tripterygium wilfordii) and the drug methotrexate for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) found that the plant extract worked as well as the drug, and that symptoms improved even more markedly when the extract and the drug were combined. The study, from researchers at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing, included 207 RA patients who received either thunder god vine in pill form three times a day for six months, methotrexate once a week at (initially 7.5 mg, then increased over a month to 12.5 mg), or a combination of the herb and the drug. At the study’s end, 55 percent of the patients who were given the thunder god vine reported that their symptoms – painful, swollen joints - had decreased by 50 percent or more, compared to 46 percent of the patients who took the methotrexate. Among the patients who took a combination of thunder god vine and methotrexate, 77 percent reported their symptoms improved by 50 percent or more.

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About half of the patients in the study reported side effects, mostly gastrointestinal problems, and side effects were more frequent in those taking the prescription drug. In addition, a few female participants developed irregular menstrual periods, more frequently in the group taking the thunder god vine extract.

Thunder god vine has been used in China for centuries to treat joint pain, local inflammation, swelling, and fever, and is approved in that country for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. The new RA study has been criticized in the U.S. for being too short to determine whether the herbal preparation slowed the course of the disease, as methotrexate can. Also, the doses of methotrexate used in the study are standard in China but lower than those typically prescribed in the U.S.

The extract used in the Chinese study was carefully prepared from the peeled root of the plant. Other parts of the plant - including the leaves, flowers, and skin of the root - are highly poisonous and can be fatal if ingested.

Even with the care that must be taken in preparing it, thunder god vine would be a much less expensive treatment for RA if it proves as effective - or more effective - than the available drugs, some of which can cost more than $3,000 per treatment. If you’re not satisfied with your RA treatment, you could consult a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine about trying thunder god vine. Be sure to notify your physician, and especially your rheumatologist, if you decide to try it.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

Xuan Ahang et al, "Comparison of Tripterygium wilfordii Hook F with methotrexate in the treatment of active rheumatoid arthritis (TRIFRA): a randomised, controlled clinical trial," Annals of Rheumatic Diseases, doi:10.1136/annrheumdis-2013-204807

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