Stinging Nettle for Arthritis: Can It Ease the Pain?

The stinging nettle plant grows freely in countries all around the world and has long been used as an herbal remedy for a variety of physical ailments. True to its name, this medicinal plant has bristly hairs on its leaves and stems that release a stinging toxin if they brush against the skin. Yet as far back as the Middle Ages, stinging nettle has been used as a topical remedy to treat joint pain. The leaves, stems, and extracts help with relieving the pain associated with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

In laboratory studies, researchers have begun to put together pieces of the puzzling fact that a plant that inflicts pain can also reduce pain. In the case of arthritis pain, researchers suspect that stinging nettle contains anti-inflammatory compounds and may also change the way the body perceives pain. More research is necessary to determine exactly how the herb works in humans and how to best apply the plant, as well as its safety and effectiveness over time.

One small, British study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine found that, after one week, topical treatment with stinging nettle significantly relieved pain in patients with osteoarthritis of the thumb or index finger. The patients were given potted nettle plants to take home; half received stinging nettle and the other half received a different variety of nettle that appears similar but has no sting. The patients were aware that stinging nettle causes slight pain or a temporary rash in some people. They were taught how to cut a leaf with their hands wrapped in plastic bags to gently press the underside of the cut leaf to the painful base of their thumb or index finger once a day for approximately 30 seconds, moving and reapplying the leaf at intervals. After two days, the patients who were using stinging nettle began to report improvement in pain and overall wellness. Although some experienced stinging pain or a rash, most patients reported these side effects as acceptable.

Interestingly, the researchers who performed the British study established their method, in part, by gathering and interviewing individuals who had previously used stinging nettle to relieve arthritis pain with reported success. All agreed that the leaf must be applied once a day, that there must be a strong stinging sensation, and that upon feeling the stinging sensation, the patient must immediately reapply the leaf to sting again.

Any application of stinging nettle plant or extract should be performed under the supervision of a doctor who is an expert on herbal medications. Although it is generally considered safe when used as directed by adults, the University of Maryland Medical Center reports that nettle may cause side effects under certain conditions, contribute to miscarriage in pregnant women, and may interfere with blood sugar management, kidney or bladder function, and the activity of other medications.



Cox College: Nettle Web July 2012

Ohio State University: Stinging Nettle Web July 2012

Randall, C. et al. "Randomized Controlled Trial of Nettle Sting for Treatment of Base-of-Thumb Pain." Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine June 2000;93:305-309 Web July 2012

White, AR. et al. "Patient Consensus on Mode of Use of Nettle Sting for Musculoskeletal Pain." Complementary Therapies in Medicine 2011 Aug;19(4):179-86.l Web July 2012