A Chinese herbal remedy known as the “thunder god vine” is more effective than methotrexate in treating symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), according to a new study.
Methotrexate is one of the most commonly used medicines in the treatment of arthritis and other rheumatic conditions. It is a disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drug (DMARD) that decreases the pain, swelling and joint damage caused by arthritis. About 20 to 40 percent of RA patients don’t respond to methotrexate or have side effects.
In a randomized controlled study published in Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, researchers with the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences studied 207 RA patients who were treated with either methotrexate, Triptergium wilfordii (thunder god vine) or a combination of both.
One group of patients took 12.5 mg of methotrexate once a week for 24 weeks. The second group took 20 mg of Triptergium wilfordii three times a day, and the third group was treated with a combination of the drug and the herb.
The researchers measured the effectiveness of the treatments using the guidelines of the American College of Rheumatology (ACR). An ACR score of 50 means that a patient’s joint pain, inflammation and disability are reduced by 50 percent.
In patients treated with methotrexate alone, 46.4% achieved an ACR score of 50, while 55.1% of those treated with Triptergium wilfordii reached ACR 50.
But it was patients treated with a combination of the herb and methotrexate that showed the most improvement, with 76.8% having an ACR score of 50.
There were few side effects in any of the patients, although some women developed irregular menstruation periods. Researchers plan to follow the patients for another 2 years to assess the long term effectiveness of the treatments and the progression of RA.
Thunder god vine has been used for centuries to reduce swelling and inflammation. It is used to treat RA, multiple sclerosis, lupus and a variety of different disorders.
There is a pressing need to develop new treatments for RA. A 2013 study presented at the annual meeting of the European League Against Rheumatism found that about half of patients with RA stop taking their medications within two years, often because the drugs lose their effectiveness.
The rate of discontinuation was high even for a new class of expensive biologic drugs, such as Enbrel and Humira, which cost about $25,000 a year.
A recent survey by the Rheumatoid Patient Foundation found that a majority of patients continue to live with pain and other symptoms of RA, despite receiving disease treatment.
“It is also clear that currently available treatments are often insufficient for relieving the pain and other symptoms caused by RA and that there remains a significant portion of the patient population that does not respond to existing treatments,” the report said.
Rheumatoid arthritis affects about 1.5 million American and 1% of adults worldwide. It is an autoimmune disease that attacks joint tissue and causes painful, often debilitating inflammation. As the disease progresses, many RA patients become significantly disabled.