The best thing about the hot summer of 2018? An old man wore shorts.

Maybe I need to expand on that?

A recent encounter with an interesting patient got me thinking.

In particular, about the use of herbal remedies.

What has that got to do with old men in shorts?

My patient is a retired science teacher who has suffered with osteoarthritis in his right knee for the last 10 years. The condition causes him pain, especially when walking.

He’s tried every pain-killer from paracetamol and anti-inflammatories to strong stuff like codeine and Tramadol, with only short-term relief from each.

He lost weight, has seen physiotherapists and had joint injections: everything but a knee replacement, which he is reluctant to have for many reasons. Nothing has worked.

Nothing had worked.

He came in to tell me that he had, literally,  stumbled on something miraculous.

The smile on his face said it all.

He explained that he had been out walking his dog and, because it was so hot, he was wearing shorts – which was unusual for him. As he went searching in some long grass for a lost tennis ball, he got stung by a small crop of nettles on his bad knee. He described how, as the sharp pain in his skin started to build, the pain inside his knee felt like it was being sucked out towards it.

After 20-minutes the stinging from the nettles had gone [with the timely application of some dock leafs] but the pain from his arthritis felt better all day.

1200px-Rumex-obtusifolius-foliage.JPG
Dock leaf (Rumex obtusifolius): a well-known remedy for nettle stings.

The power of science

Being a scientist by training (and naturally curious), he did a search for ‘nettle sting pain relief’ later that evening, and came across an interesting study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine from June 2000 entitled ‘Randomized controlled trial of nettle sting for treatment of base-of-thumb pain’. [PDF]

He brought in a print-out of the five-page article for me to read.

Usually, when patients come in with their own ‘research’ I expect to see a cutting from the Daily Mail, but this time I was impressed.

The study was small – just 27 patients – but the results were clear.

Participants were split into two groups. One group were told to apply a stinging nettle to the base of their thumb for 30-seconds, twice a day for one week and the other applied a leaf from the white deadnettle, a plant with leaves that are identical to those of an ordinary stinging nettle, but crucially have no sting.

115.jpg
White deadnettle (Lamium album)

After a four-week break, the patients then got another round of treatment but this time it was either stinging nettle or the deadnettle placebo. Throughout the treatment the patients were asked to rate their pain scores.

In just one week those who had been using the stinging nettle experienced a 38% reduction in their pain rating compared to the ones who used the white deadnettle leaves. They were also taking fewer tablets and their overall opinion of their own health had improved.

Nettle benefits
The solid dark line is stinging nettles. The dashed line is deadnettles.

Sometimes I wish all my patients were like him

As a result of his research my patient told me that he had been applying one nettle leaf to his knee every time he took his dog for a walk – which was once before breakfast and once after dinner. He followed it up a bit later down the path with a dock leaf.

He avoided getting stung anywhere else by picking the leaves with his hand inside a dog-poo bag. He wasn’t worried about the red wheals on his skin that appeared: “no one’s interested in what my knees look like anymore, doctor”.

My professional opinion?

I am pleased for my patient and I have let him carry on using his own ‘nettle therapy’ because it seems to be helping, it doesn’t seem to cause much harm and, more to the point, I can’t do anything to stop him!

The fact that it might reduce the amount of painkillers he uses and the number of times he visits me each year is in the back of my mind,  like any GP…… Especially as we are starting to get to grips with an epidemic of prescription-opioid addiction and when the NHS is looking under rocks for cost savings.

Nettles are free, green [NO PUN INTENDED?], safe and – as proven by science in the year 2000 – effective.

They will probably cause an irritating skin rash that lasts for a few hours or possibly a day or two and, just like prescribed medicines, there is a very small risk of an extreme allergic reaction, but the chance is probably less than a one in a million.

I am a Muslim, how did you expect me to finish?

Nettles existed on Earth millions of years before humans did, and yet they hold, in their microscopic needles, a toxin that can relieve our pain.

When I was an atheist I might have interpreted this fact as proof that there is no god, but now I am a Muslim I see it differently:

“And it is He who sends down rain from the sky, and We produce thereby the growth of all things. We produce from it greenery from which We produce grains arranged in layers. And from the palm trees – of its emerging fruit are clusters hanging low. And [We produce] gardens of grapevines and olives and pomegranates, similar yet varied. Look at [each of] its fruit when it yields and [at] its ripening. Indeed in that are signs for a people who believe.”

(Qur’an, 6:99)

Islam IS science

Islam teaches us that science is a way to truly understand the workings of the universe, after all, it is done inside brains which were themselves created by Allah.

This is one reason why Muslims prize education so highly.

If anyone tells you that Islam is anti-science or anti-learning, ask them how they know that, and then tell them they’re wrong.

There is nothing within Islam that would stop someone from trying stinging nettles for joint pain, and nothing will ever stop old men wearing shorts when the sun comes out!

 

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