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Back in the good old days, I played bass fiddle in a a five-member band. At that time, three of our band members or their relatives were using an herb known as stinging nettle to relieve arthritis pain. Although stinging nettle does cook up into a tasty vegetable, these musicians weren't eating it. Rather, they were stinging themselves with it by grasping the plant in a gloved hand and then swatting their stiff, swollen joints.

This practice, called urtication — from nettle's botanical name, Urtica dioca — dates back at least 2,000 years. Although it's an odd-sounding practice, there's no escaping the fact that it's been around so long precisely because it helps so many people.


Learn how to use these natural remedies for arthritis pain.

Our banjo player kept a plant in his kitchen so he could self-urticate when his arthritis flared up. The guitar player's mother-in-law was unable to write because of arthritis in her hands, but the sting of the nettle improved that. The fiddle player's mother soon had stinging nettle taking over her garden and said her arthritis was much improved.

Just so you don't think that urtication is something only crazy musicians indulge in, my former secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) kept a nettle plant in the office. She would use the nettle to discreetly sting herself when arthritis stiffened her fingers. On a before-and-after photocopied image of her hand, you could see how the swelling went down.

Urtication often provides considerable relief, sometimes very quickly. I've seen arthritic swelling subside within minutes after the stings were administered.

The Case for Stinging Nettle

I'm open to the notion that stinging nettle's anti-arthritis action is based on distraction, meaning the irritation of the sting simply takes people's minds off their arthritis pain. That's an explanation you might hear from medical doctors. But as a botanist, I think what's going on is more chemical than psychological.

The tiny stingers of the nettle plant provide microinjections of several chemicals responsible for the stinging sensation the plant causes. One M.D. told me many of these chemicals might also trigger anti-inflammation action that would help relieve arthritis. The sting injects a histaminic substance and the body mounts an antihistaminic reaction, some of which goes to the sting, some to the other inflammation.

Tiny stingers in this nettle provide microinjections of chemicals that can help relieve arthritis.

On every continent where it grows, stinging nettle has developed a reputation as a treatment for arthritis. I don't think that's a coincidence. If you'd like to give urtication a try, you shouldn't have much problem locating a plant. It's a common weed throughout most of the United States. If you're not sure how to identify it, someone who works at a plant nursery or your local county agricultural extension agent should be able to help.