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White Willow Bark for Osteoarthritis

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Updated July 12, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

White willow bark (Salix alba) is an herb sometimes used in treatment of osteoarthritis. Long used in herbal medicine to fight inflammation, white willow bark contains salicin (a natural compound that is chemically similar to aspirin). White willow bark is thought to help treat osteoarthritis by curbing inflammation and reducing pain.

Health Benefits of White Willow Bark for Osteoarthritis

Many people use white willow bark as an osteoarthritis remedy in order to avoid or lessen their use of aspirin, which contains a synthetic salicin-like chemical known as acetylsalicylic acid. While aspirin is known to irritate the lining of the stomach, white willow bark does not tend to be irritating. This is possibly due to the fact that the salicin found naturally in white willow bark is only converted to acid form after it is absorbed by the stomach.

So far, studies on the use of white willow bark as an osteoarthritis treatment have yielded mixed results. In a 2009 report from Phytotherapy Research, for instance, scientists looked at the available research on the use of white willow bark in treatment of musculoskeletal pain and found conflicting evidence for its effectiveness against osteoarthritis. In a 2007 research review published in the same journal, investigators determined that evidence of white willow bark's effectiveness as an osteoarthritis treatment was "inconsistent." The authors of both reports note that more research is needed before white willow bark can be recommended to osteoarthritis patients.

The clinical trials testing white willow bark's effectiveness as an osteoarthritis treatment include a 2004 study from the Journal of Rheumatology. For the study, 127 patients with osteoarthritis of the hip or knee were given white willow bark extract, diclofenac (a pain medication often used in treatment of osteoarthritis), or a placebo every day for six weeks. Study results showed that white willow bark was no more effective than placebo in terms of its effects on pain severity.

However, in a 2001 study from Phytotherapy Research, research on 78 osteoarthritis patients revealed that two weeks of treatment with white willow bark extract was significantly more effective than placebo in alleviating pain. The study's authors concluded that white willow bark may have a moderate pain-reducing effect on osteoarthritis patients.

Is White Willow Bark Safe for Osteoarthritis?

There's some concern that white willow bark may be harmful to people with an aspirin allergy or sensitivity. White willow bark should also be avoided by people with peptic ulcers, kidney disease, gout, or asthma.

In addition, taking white willow bark in combination with ginkgo biloba, vitamin E, or garlic may increase your risk of bleeding. It's also important to avoid use of white willow bark within two weeks of undergoing surgery.

When taken in excessive doses, white willow bark may cause ringing in the ears, ulcers, stomach burning, pain, cramping, nausea, gastrointestinal bleeding, liver toxicity, rash, dizziness, and/or kidney impairment.

Where to Find It

Widely available for purchase online, white willow bark is found in many natural-foods stores, drugstores, and stores specializing in dietary supplements.

Should You Use White Willow Bark to Treat Osteoarthritis?

Although research on white willow bark and osteoarthritis is fairly limited, it's possible that white willow bark may help you manage osteoarthritis. If you're considering the use of white willow bark, talk to your doctor before starting your supplement regimen. Self-treating osteoarthritis (or any other chronic condition) with white willow bark and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.

Sources:

Biegert C, Wagner I, Lüdtke R, Kötter I, Lohmüller C, Günaydin I, Taxis K, Heide L. "Efficacy and safety of willow bark extract in the treatment of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis: results of 2 randomized double-blind controlled trials." J Rheumatol. 2004 Nov;31(11):2121-30.

Cameron M, Gagnier JJ, Little CV, Parsons TJ, Blümle A, Chrubasik S. "Evidence of effectiveness of herbal medicinal products in the treatment of arthritis. Part I: Osteoarthritis." Phytother Res. 2009 Nov;23(11):1497-515.

Chrubasik JE, Roufogalis BD, Chrubasik S. "Evidence of effectiveness of herbal antiinflammatory drugs in the treatment of painful osteoarthritis and chronic low back pain." Phytother Res. 2007 Jul;21(7):675-83.

Schmid B, Lüdtke R, Selbmann HK, Kötter I, Tschirdewahn B, Schaffner W, Heide L. "Efficacy and tolerability of a standardized willow bark extract in patients with osteoarthritis: randomized placebo-controlled, double blind clinical trial." Phytother Res. 2001 Jun;15(4):344-50.

Vlachojannis JE, Cameron M, Chrubasik S. "A systematic review on the effectiveness of willow bark for musculoskeletal pain." Phytother Res. 2009 Jul;23(7):897-900.

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