An all too common disorder, osteoarthritis produces chronic pain and disability. The first major study, published in 2000, showed no benefit of ginger extract over placebo, but that study only lasted three weeks. The next study, in 2001, lasted six weeks and, by the end, was able to show significantly better results compared to placebo. However, because the placebo did so well, reducing pain from the 60s down to the 40s on a scale of 1 to 100, ginger reducing pain further down into the 30s was not especially clinically significant, so an editorial in the official journal of the American College of Rheumatology concluded that “ginger should not be recommended at present for treatment of arthritis because of the limited efficacy.”
Since that time, there have been a few other trials that showed more impressive results, such that ginger is now considered “able to reduce pain and disability” in osteoarthritis. How does it compare to other treatments? Since osteoarthritis is a chronic disease, it’s especially important to weigh the risks versus the benefits of treatment. The commonly used anti-inflammatory drugs can carry serious cardiovascular and gastrointestinal risks. For example, nearly half of the osteoarthritis patients on drugs like ibuprofen were found to have major injuries to the lining of their small intestines. That risk can be reduced by taking additional medication to counteract the side effects of the first drug.
Ibuprofen-type drugs reduce our stomach lining’s ability to protect itself from stomach acid, so blocking acid production with a second drug can lower the risk. However, ginger can actually improve stomach lining protection. Indeed, at the kinds of doses used to treat osteoarthritis—about a quarter- to a half-teaspoon a day—ginger can be considered not just neutral on the stomach, but beneficial. So, ginger can be as pain-relieving as ibuprofen but without the risk of stomach ulcers.
What about topical ginger treatment, as in externally applying a ginger-soaked cloth or patch to the affected joint? In a controlled study, compress versus patch, both showed remarkable and lasting pain relief for osteoarthritis sufferers. What was missing from the study, though, was a control group: There was no placebo patch. I don’t care if ginger has been applied externally to painful joints for a thousand years. The placebo effect has been shown to be remarkably effective in osteoarthritis in providing pain relief. So, until there’s a controlled study on topical ginger, I’m not going to believe it.