Chinese herbal medicine as effective as methotrexate for rheumatoid arthritis, new study claims, but don’t forget its side effects

A traditional Chinese herbal remedy – Triptergium wilfordii Hook F – has shown to work as well as methotrexate for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, says research published in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases.

A team from the Peking Union Medical College Hospital found that TwHF randomly assigned 207 people with active rheumatoid arthritis to one of three treatment groups:

  • Methotrexate 12.5 mg once a week
  • TwHF 20 mg three times a day
  • A combination of the two for 24 weeks.

Results showed that the proportion of people achieving the target of a 50% improvement in the number of tender or swollen joints and other criteria (including pain, disability and disease severity) was just under 46.5% in people treated with methotrexate alone, compared to 55% of those receiving TwHF.

And just under 77% of those treated with both reached the treatment goal, suggesting a combination of treatments could give the best results.

But the scientists acknowledge that 24 weeks is too short a time to evaluate disease progression. And the dose of methotrexate used in the trial was lower than the typical dosage.

TwHF is already approved for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis in China.

“Previous trials of TwHF, also known as thunder god vine, have shown it has some anti-inflammatory properties and immunosuppressive actions, making the compound a potentially useful substance for treating rheumatoid arthritis,” explains a spokeswoman for Arthritis Research UK. “However, it has well-documented side effects such as stomach pain, diarrhoea, nausea, headaches, skin rash, hair loss, infertility in men and failure to menstruate in women. There are serious safety concerns about this substance and its risks appear to outweigh its benefits.”