When two popular treatments for osteoarthritis (Vioxx and Bextra) were withdrawn from the market a few years ago due to safety concerns, you could almost hear the collective cry of dismay from the thousands of people who relied on these drugs to control their joint pain (my father being one of them). Many people were put on different kinds of the same general type of medication, called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. But this didn't sit easy with some (my dad included), who worried about the risks of these drugs as well.
If you fall into this group, you may be interested in a new study that looked at a novel treatment for osteoarthritis: frankincense. This plant resin is associated more with the holidays than with healing in Western culture, but it has been used in traditional Indian and Chinese medicine for centuries.
The study looked at using a concentrated extract of the Indian frankincense plant, Boswellia serrate, for osteoarthritis in the knee. After 90 days, people who took this treatment, called 5-Loxin, had around half as much pain and stiffness in their knees as they had at the beginning of the study, and their knee movement was about twice as good. Symptoms of those taking a pretend treatment for comparison (a placebo) also improved, but only by a little. People taking the treatment had no more side effects than those on the placebo.
These findings are promising but very preliminary. The study was small (70 people), and it didn't look at people who had osteoarthritis in other joints, such as their hips or hands. Also, we don't know how this treatment might affect you if you take it for a long time or how it compares with other treatments. Researchers will need to investigate these issues before we know how safe or effective it is.
What should I do now? If you are interested in trying this treatment, run it by your doctor first. Herbal treatments are not suitable for everyone and they may interact with other medications you are taking. You should also make sure you buy herbal remedies from a reputable source. Herbal products are not regulated in the same way as conventional medicines and some products may not be checked for quality.
—Sophie Ramsey, patient editor, BMJ Group
ConsumerReportsHealth.org has partnered with The BMJ Group to monitor the latest medical research and assess the evidence to help you decide which news you should use.
Find out more about herbal pain relief (free), read our Natural Medicine Ratings for Indian frankincense (Boswellia serrate), and check our Interaction Tracker (subscribers only).