Devil’s Claw – An alternative to Bute?

21st December 2012
Beryl Shuttleworth
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Devil’s Claw, otherwize known as Harpagophytum procumbens, grows only in the Kalahari desert in Namibia. The roots are collected in the wild and exported all over the world, where they are extremely widely used in human as well as animal medicines. Although a great deal of controversy exists among researchers as to whether it works or not.


Devil’s Claw is reputed to have two main effects – analgesic (painkilling) and anti-inflammatory. It’s analgesic properties are not contraversial. A laboratory in France has obtained results that show a 78% reduction in pain using Devil’s Claw.


It is the anti-inflammatory effect of Devil’s Claw that is controversial. Some studies show a marked effect, while others report little effect at the same dose. The main difference between the two extremes is the way in which it is administered. When injected into the site of swelling, the effect is greatest. Also, when it was injected into the small intestine (and therefore bypasses the stomach), the effect was greater than when fed by mouth.

Scientists put two and two together and suspected that the stomach acid partially broke down the active ingredients of the root. To prove this, they injected an extract of Devil’s Claw that they had previously mixed with acid in the lab. Confirming their suspicions, the acid hydrolysed root had a lesser effect than the same root which had not been mixed with acid. The main consequence of this is that, when fed by mouth, a higher dose is needed than when injected. This is true of a lot of drugs.

How does it work?

Another aspect of this plant has got scientists flummoxed. That is – how does it work and which are the active ingredients? Initially, a molecule called harpagoside was proposed to be the active ingredient in Devil’s Claw. However, this theory was disproven when harpagoside injected on its own had none of the anti-inflammatry effects of the whole plant extract.

Lameness is the number one cause of racehorses ending their careers. It also affects all other horse sports. Non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID’s), such as phenybutazone (bute), are very widely used in the horse industry, with, many would argue, great success. However, long term use of NSAID’s has unpleasant side-effects, such as gastric ulcers and cartilage damage. It is also a testable substance at many events. So, Devil’s Claw, either injected or fed by mouth in a sufficient amount, would be an excellent safe and legal alternative to bute.
Devil’s Claw has also recently become illegal for competition – so remember to stop using 3 days before the event.

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