Ginger has been used for medicinal purposes — often to treat nausea and other ailments — since ancient times. Lately, it has gained popularity as a natural remedy and anti-inflammatory to help relieve the symptoms of arthritis. But is it effective?
Anecdotally, some people with arthritis, both osteoarthritis and inflammatory arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), say using ginger been beneficial.
“I often drink ginger tea when it is raining — it seems to lessen the joint pain and helps with an upset stomach from my prescribed medications,” CreakyJoints member Nana C. told us on Facebook. “I also make my own essential oil topicals for joint pain. I use a mixture that includes ginger.”
Let’s look at why ginger might work, and what the studies on ginger have actually shown.
What Is Ginger, and What Does It Do in the Body?
The root of the ginger plant, officially known as Zingiber officinale, is what is used as a spice in cooking. “Ginger is closely related to cardamom and turmeric,” says Cristina Montoya, RD, a registered dietitian who specializes in nutrition for arthritis, and who herself has rheumatoid arthritis and Sjögren’s sydrome. “It is high in gingerol, a bioactive substance that [may have] anti-inflammatory properties.”
Some research has indicated that ginger may inhibit a pain and inflammation-causing enzyme called COX-2, but “the evidence isn’t clear on the action mechanism of ginger in the body,” Montoya says.
Ginger has been seen in some studies to have an aspirin-like anti-inflammatory effect because of how it interacts with these inflammation-causing enzymes, says Susan Goodman, MD, a rheumatologist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Plus, ginger has also been shown to potentially reduce the expression of genes that “turn on” inflammation. “However, the magnitude — and therefore the relevance — of the effect is not clear,” she says.
Does Ginger Work to Help Arthritis? What the Research Says
The science-based evidence of ginger in reducing arthritis symptoms is limited, but some studies are promising. Montoya points to a 2001 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study that included 247 patients with moderate-to-severe osteoarthritis pain. “Sixty-three percent of patients in the test group taking a ginger extract experienced reduction in knee pain on standing,” she says, compared to 50 percent of the control group.
More recently, a small 2019 study enrolled 70 rheumatoid arthritis patients who were randomly placed to take either 1,500 mg of ginger powder or a placebo for 12 weeks. “The outcomes indicated that ginger seems to improve RA symptoms,” Montoya says, but “more definitive studies are needed.”
Overall, “the evidence available is very heterogenous in terms of sample, type of arthritis, and whether animals or humans were studied,” Montoya says. A 2015 meta-analysis of studies found ginger to be moderately effective for OA, but the evidence was also found to be of moderate quality.
Using Ginger Along with Arthritis Medication
Any effects that ginger may have seem to be on relieving symptoms, not on the actual course of arthritis disease itself.
“The effect of ginger on arthritis appears limited to mild pain relief — no studies have demonstrated an important effect on disease modification,” Dr. Goodman says. “This is especially important for people with rheumatoid arthritis, as there are excellent disease-modifying medications available, while osteoarthritis patients do not have good disease modifying medicines.”
So be sure to keep taking your prescribed medications. Ginger — or other supplements — should not be used in place of them.
Ginger and Nausea
Another way some people with arthritis use ginger, though, is for the nausea that some of their medications give them.
“I used candied ginger for the first six months of taking methotrexate, and the first year of Remicade,” Elizabeth F. told us on Facebook. Brenda K. shared that she “had terrible nausea with methotrexate, and [ginger] did help settle my stomach.”
Montoya points out that although ginger has been traditionally used to treat nausea, the science isn’t conclusive and more research is needed. But, several reviews of studies — like one from 2018 and another from 2016 — found that the available evidence shows ginger may be effective for nausea. Another paper from 2015 reports that certain compounds in ginger may ease nausea by helping to move along the digestive process.
Is Ginger Safe?
In addition to using fresh or dried ginger in cooking, ginger is also available in teas, extracts, powders, topical treatments, essential oils, and supplements.
Cooking with ginger is generally safe, but it also might not be concentrated enough to have an effect. “It’s probably most cost-effective and enjoyable to consume ginger in cooking, but most studies used ginger extracts over dietary ginger,” Montoya says.
However, both Montoya and Dr. Goodman recommend caution when taking ginger as a supplement for arthritis. “I don’t recommend ginger supplements, as there are many better studied, more effective treatments,” Dr. Goodman says.
Ironically, although ginger may help with nausea, “high quantities can cause digestive distress,” Montoya says. “A specific dosage can’t be strongly recommended and should be consulted with your health care provider due to the potential digestive side effects.” In addition, “ginger extracts have not been standardized and should be taken with caution,” she says.
People who are on blood-thinning medications such as warfarin should talk to their doctor before taking ginger. “While ginger may help with mild nausea, and may help relieve mild pain, it may also increase the tendency to bleed, so this may be a concern for some people who are at risk for bleeding due to an underlying condition or medications,” Dr. Goodman says. “Ginger in teas or through cooking are less likely to provide levels that are high enough to cause adverse effects.”
Should You Consider Taking Ginger for Arthritis?
Talk to your doctor before starting on any herbal regimen, but here are some suggestions for how to take ginger from our experts, as well as from people with arthritis:
Make a tea (hot or iced)
“I used to make a tea and drink it hot or iced: any tea, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, black pepper, lemon and honey,” Elizabeth F. told us on Facebook. “You probably need high levels to make any big difference. But I’ll take any improvements I can get.”
Try an essential oil blend
“Ginger tea can be found in many grocery stores or online,” shared Nana C. “Topically, I use the ginger essential oil mixed into either grape seed oil or almond oil, which I prefer. My ‘potion’ is a few drops of rosemary, marjoram, black pepper and ginger. There are many recipes online —this one seems to help me the most.”
Grate the herb to use in cooking
To prepare [fresh] ginger, “scrape off the skin using the top of a teaspoon, or use a small, sharp knife to remove any pieces of skin that will not go away,” Montoya says. “Slice the ginger finely or grate the peeled ginger to get a flavorsome paste without the fibrous pieces.” The peeled ginger can also be stored in the fridge for a week, she says.
Add ginger to your cooking
“Some ways to add ginger to your diet are to add ginger powder to vinaigrettes or salad dressings, add freshly grated ginger to stir fries, grate or blend fresh ginger root into soups or sauces, sprinkle ginger powder to your oatmeal, or add fresh or ground ginger to your smoothies,” Montoya says.
Combine it with fish
“A diet rich in fatty fish, utilizing ginger and turmeric in seasonings may help some patients gain better control of their pain and stiffness due to arthritis,” Dr. Goodman says.
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Interview with Susan Goodman, MD, a rheumatologist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City
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