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Last Updated: Friday, 30 June 2006, 23:39 GMT 00:39 UK
Could chilli peppers relieve pain?
By Jane Elliott
BBC News health reporter

Sue Arnott
Hopes a natural source could offer pain relief
Could the humble chilli pepper hold the answer to arthritis pain?

Scientists at King's College, London are hoping they can harness the heat in chilli peppers and adapt it to combat inflammation in arthritis.

Although the work is still in the very early stages scientists hope their research will lead to a drug being manufactured.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory disease, in which the body's immune system attacks the joints, leading to pain, inflammation and stiffness.


It affects about 600,000 people in the UK.

For most of her adult life, Sue Arnott, from the Midlands, has had rheumatoid arthritis and her joints have crumbled.

You go through weeks and weeks of not sleeping properly
Sue Arnott

Sue, now aged 54, has had one knee joint replaced twice, the other once, she has had a replacement hip and has needed surgery on a foot and hand.

Her hands are very malformed, and she can not stretch out her fingers properly, making opening doors and locks very difficult.

Sue explained that her knees had been the worst affected, and that when the cover protecting her joints was destroyed she had been left 'walking with bone against bone, which was excruciating.'

Since her joint replacements, Sue has had a respite from her pain, but she knows it could just be a matter of time before other joints are affected again.

"Pain is insidious. If you live with it all the time you do not realise how insidious it is.

"The pain gets so bad that you can't sleep. You go through weeks and weeks of not sleeping properly. The pain is etched on your face.

"I am not in pain now and am very happy at the moment.

"Following my operation, apart from the pain of the surgery, it is like someone has waved a magic wand."


Now doctors are hoping to harness the powers of chilli peppers to contain the high levels of pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis.

Sue knows it will be a long time before any pain relieving drugs are available from the research, but says it would be wonderful if there could be a pain reliever from such a natural source.

"It would be a drug and drugs do have their downsides, but if its upside is that it comes from a natural source and relieves pain then go for it. If it could stop the serious pain then that would be so brilliant.

"I do hope all patients who have episodes of excruciating pain benefit from a drug like this."

The research team led by Professor Susan Brain have been funded for two years to look into how capsaicin, the hot substance found in chilli peppers can help to combat inflammation in arthritis.

Chilli peppers
Scientists are hoping to harness the power of chillies

Ultimately they hope their research will enable scientists to develop a new type of anti-inflammatory painkiller for the condition, which might help avoid the serious side effects caused by existing therapies.

Professor Brain said: "The project is designed to learn more precisely how capsaicin works to combat the effects if one of the best-known inflammatory substances, TNF-alpha, and in turn work towards the possibility that agents without the burning side effects of chilli peppers may be useful in the treatment of arthritis.

"We know that the activation of a mechanism called TRPV1 on pain sensitive nerves is involved in arthritis models.

"However, little is known of mechanisms that link the inflammatory and pain sensitive components.

Little is known of mechanisms that link the inflammatory and pain sensitive components
Professor Brain

"TRPV1 is stimulated by capsaicin, which is found in extracts from chilli peppers."

She said that over the centuries capsaicin had been widely used, but that there were problems associated with it.

"Capsaicin has been used for many treatments including rheumatism, in folk medicine. There are also creams available that include capsaicin and are applied to the skin to treat the aches and pains, but they are associated with a burning sensation."

She said drug companies were already showing interest in their research.

A spokesperson for the Arthritis Research Campaign, which is funding the research said: "We welcome any new initiatives to help reduce the pain of arthritis, as existing drugs are far from perfect, and the only effective alternative for severe osteoarthritis is joint replacement."

"We know that capsaicin has a pain-relieving effect when used in cream form, so it makes sense to try and harness its anti-inflammatory properties into a tablet."

Arthritis cause 'identified'
21 Aug 02 |  Health
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