NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – An inflammation-fighting plant extract may offer some pain relief to people with mild knee arthritis, a new study suggests.

The extract, derived from the bark of the French maritime pine tree, has been shown to have strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions in lab studies.

These latest findings suggest that those actions may translate into pain relief for people with early-stage osteoarthritis.

Researchers found that knee arthritis sufferers who took the pine bark extract for three months reported an improvement in their pain, while those given a placebo had no improvement.

In addition, the study found, the pain relief persisted for an additional two weeks after the patients stopped taking the extract, which is marketed under the brand-name Pycnogenol.

This lasting benefit is not something that is seen with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), the mainstay of arthritis treatment, Dr. Peter Rohdewald, the study’s senior author, told Reuters Health.

“Our study doesn’t show evidence for this, but I do speculate that Pycnogenol has a more lasting effect on the joints, further to mere pain management as with NSAIDs,” said Rohdewald, of the University of Munster in Germany.

The herbal extract, he explained, appears to work as a potent anti- inflammatory within the joints.

Rohdewald and his colleagues report the findings in the journal Phytotherapy Research. Switzerland-based Horphag Research Ltd., maker of Pycnogenol, funded the work.

The study included 100 Slovakian adults with mild knee arthritis who were randomly assigned to take either 150 milligrams of pine bark extract or a placebo every day for three months. The researchers assessed the patients’ symptoms every two weeks.

Patients in both study groups were allowed to keep taking NSAIDs or any other medication they’d been prescribed for their arthritis.

Overall, the researchers found, patients on the pine bark extract showed a gradual improvement in their pain, with the difference between the two groups becoming apparent at the one-month mark.

In addition, more than one third of the supplement users were able to cut down on their NSAID use, while few placebo patients — 8 percent — were able to do the same.

Coupled with findings from two previous clinical trials, Rohdewald said, the current study provides enough evidence that Pycnogenol is worth a try for people with milder knee arthritis.

They should, however, speak to their doctors first, he noted. “I always recommend that patients communicate with their physicians (about) what they are taking in addition to the prescribed medication.”

SOURCE: Phytotherapy Research, August 2008.