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Wednesday, 31 May, 2000, 23:44 GMT 00:44 UK
Nettles 'ease arthritis suffering'
Arthritic hands
Arthritis can be a chronic condition for some sufferers
Stinging nettles can be an effective therapy to relieve the pain of arthritis, researchers say.

There is anecdotal evidence from around the world of the usefulness of nettles in treating the condition - from soldiers in Roman times to modern day Ecuador.

The stinging nettle is a freely available plant and its sting seems a safe treatment

Dr Colin Randall, University of Plymouth
But a study carried out at the University of Plymouth is thought to be the first of its kind to apparently prove scientifically that the therapy works.

Stinging nettle leaves were applied to the hands of 27 arthritis sufferers daily for a week.

The results were then compared to the effect of using a placebo, the white deadnettle leaf, which does not sting, also applied for a week.

The researchers found that stinging nettles not only significantly reduced pain, but also that the level of that pain stayed lower through most of the treatment.

Although pain relief "was most likely to occur if a sting with weals was produced", 85% of patients said that this was an acceptable side-effect, and most said they preferred the stinging nettles to their usual pain relief.

It is not known why the nettles work, but they contain serotonin and histamine, both of which are neuro-transmitters, and might affect pain perception and transmission at the nerve endings.

Other possibilities could be that the sting has an acupuncture-like effect, or that it acts as a "counter irritant" like capsaicin, an ingredient derived from peppers which is used in products like Ralgex.

Conventional treatments

Some of the patients were already taking conventional treatments - analgesics and anti-inflammatories, but none had used nettles before.

Dr Colin Randall at the university led the research and first became interested in the possibility of nettles as a therapy as a GP when patients claimed it eased their pain.

He said in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine: "The stinging nettle is a freely available plant and its sting seems a safe treatment for musculoskeletal pain."

The pain of the sting could have an effect on patients' perception of their arthritis, he added.

The Arthritis Research Campaign is about to fund research into complementary medicines, including dietary supplements, herbalism and acupuncture, for the first time.

Chief executive of the charity Fergus Logan said: "New medicines and treatments have traditionally been developed under a convention which says in a nutshell 'Don't use it if you can't prove it'.

"But in complementary medicine, it is often believed that the proof is provided by use and that no further investigation is needed.

"Scientists find this concept difficult, hence the scepticism some feel."

Professor Paul Emery, a leading rheumatologist, said: "I'm all for testing complementary therapies. We have to work out if they work or not - we can't simply ignore them."

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