For centuries, spices have been used as medicines. Today their healing potential is again being rediscovered, especially curcumin. In one recent medical study, curcumin was found to be better than conventional medications at relieving the pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis.
Curcumin is derived from the spice turmeric. Turmeric is a member of the ginger plant family. The ginger family is comprised of more than 1,300 members and many are considered medicinal plants including ginger, turmeric, melegueta pepper and cardamom. Although many studies have demonstrated the anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin, good medical studies comparing the effectiveness of curcumin to current medications are limited.
Medical research with curcumin or its parent, turmeric, is increasing. These studies suggest that curcumin and turmeric may have benefits for a number of medical conditions including many cancers, skin conditions like psoriasis, Alzheimer's disease, irritable bowel disease, autoimmune diseases and chronic pain.
One specific autoimmune disease often associated with chronic pain is rheumatoid arthritis. An autoimmune disease is a medical condition in which the body attacks itself. RA is most commonly expressed as pain and damage to the joints, especially in the hands. Severe RA can be life threatening and can damage many organs, including the heart and liver. Fortunately RA is relatively rare, affecting only about 1 percent of the population. For unknown reasons, women are affected three times more often than men.
Anti-inflammatory medications are used to help with the pain, but long-term use can damage the kidneys and increase the risk of stomach ulcers and bleeding. Safer pain-relieving products are needed for long-term use. Curcumin may be an option.
In the medical journal Phytotherapy Research, two researchers, one from the Nirmala Medical Centre in India and the other from Baylor Research Institute and the Sammons Cancer Center in Texas, published their work on curcumin. They showed that curcumin is more effective than the common anti-inflammatory medication diclofenac for the pain associated with mild, active RA.
In the study, RA patients taking curcumin for eight weeks had a 44 percent reduction in pain symptoms, while those taking diclofenac had a 42 percent reduction. It may not seem like there is a big difference between curcumin and diclofenac, but the difference was significant.
Interestingly, the curcumin group also had a greater reduction in overall inflammation (RA may have slightly improved) compared to the diclofenac group. There also were no adverse events with curcumin.
This was an initial study, but was well controlled and randomized. It is a good study and the results cannot be dismissed. Larger clinical trials are needed to confirm these results.
One drawback to curcumin is that, by itself, it is poorly absorbed. Black pepper can help increase absorption. Over-the-counter curcumin may or may not contain black pepper.
Although curcumin appears to be very safe, interactions with medications are always possible. RA is a serious disease and I strongly recommend consulting a medical doctor before using curcumin to treat RA symptoms.
• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network. His website is www.alt-med.org.