Cabbage Leaf Wraps for Arthritic Knees


Unbelievably, a randomized controlled trial of cabbage leaf wraps for arthritis was published.

In a section of the British Medical Journal called “Minerva,” where interesting little snippets are compiled, a picture was published of a woman who had taped a cabbage leaf to her knee. She said that was the only measure that provided relief from the symptoms of her osteoarthritis. You can see the photo at 0:12 in my video Benefits of Cabbage Leaves on the Knee for Osteoarthritis. Some doctors responded with bemusement, and another was amazed—“not amazed that a cabbage leaf was used, but that this was considered newsworthy.” That doctor disclosed she may be a little biased, though, admitting to being a cabbage-leaf-user herself.

Wrote another reader, “Freshly washed cabbage leaves are known in European folk medicine as the poor man’s poultice. There is nothing new about this ancient remedy used to help reduce all kinds of painful swelling…So there is nothing freakish or stupid about the woman pictured in Minerva who used it over her painful knee.” I didn’t realize it was such a touchy topic. 

Of course, how could we know if it actually works? We’d need a randomized controlled trial of topical cabbage leaves for osteoarthritis, and we got just that.

The study: “Efficacy of Cabbage Leaf Wraps in the Treatment of Symptomatic Osteoarthritis of the Knee: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” How did the study even get funded? A family foundation stepped forward and paid for it. I love that. In fact, it was the foundation of Germany’s former President and First Lady. After all, “Osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee is one of the most common chronic diseases among older adults.” So, why not test the effects of cabbage leaf wraps?

Patients with confirmed osteoarthritis of the knees were randomly assigned to one of three treatments for four weeks: a cabbage leaf on their knees every day, a topical pain gel containing an anti-inflammatory drug, or neither, just “usual care.” (Even better would have been a fourth group applying iceberg lettuce leaves, for example, but I’ll take what I can get.)

At 2:13 in my video, I show a graph of pain intensity over the 28-day experiment. The topical gel did not work much better than doing nothing all, but the cabbage leaf treatment actually worked in reducing pain intensity. Overall, the study “found that a 4-week application of CLWs [cabbage leaf wraps] was more effective than UC [usual care] with respect to pain, functional disability, and quality of life. It was, however, not superior to a 4-week application of topical medication” in the final analysis. Since cabbage leaves are “safe and may be used in the longer term,” why not give them a try if you have osteoarthritis of the knee?

It also wouldn’t hurt if you ate some as well, as cabbage may have internal anti-inflammatory potential as well. In fact, the anti-inflammatory effects may explain the health benefits of cabbage and other cruciferous family vegetables. And I’m not just talking about potent anti-inflammatory effects in petri dishes, but in people, too. In one study, ten days of broccoli consumption in smokers cut C-reactive protein levels 40 percent! Okay, but what about for arthritis?

In vitro, sulforaphane, the magic cabbage chemical, protects cartilage from destruction, suggesting that a diet high in cabbage or other cruciferous vegetables “may be a useful measure either to prevent or to slow the progression of OA,” osteoarthritis. But, as you can see at 3:38 in my video, even if sulforaphane can protect cartilage cells in a petri dish, how do we know the compound makes it into our joints when we eat it? I mean, no one has ever done a study where people eat broccoli and then a needle is stuck in their knee joints to check. No one, that is…until now.

And, indeed, sulforaphane was detected in the synovial fluid of 40 patients with osteoarthritis after broccoli consumption, followed by significant epigenetic changes of gene expression within the joint. The next step is to see if it can actually improve the disease.

Knees aren’t the body parts cabbage has been tested on. Stay tuned for my video about the use of cabbage leaves for mastitis!

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Cabbage leaves, known as “the poor man’s poultice” in European folk medicine, have been used to help reduce painful swelling.
  • One of the most common chronic diseases among older adults is osteoarthritis of the knee.
  • Researchers randomized osteoarthritis patients to one of three groups for a month: cabbage leaves on their knees every day, a topical pain gel containing an anti-inflammatory, or nothing but “usual care.” The daily cabbage leaf wraps were more effective than usual care with regards to pain, functional disability, and quality of life, but not when compared with a month of topical medication application.
  • Since cabbage leaves are “safe and may be used in the longer term,” they may be worth trying to relieve pain caused by osteoarthritis of the knee.
  • Eating cabbage may also be beneficial, as cruciferous vegetables have proven anti-inflammatory effects. For instance, smokers reduced their C-reactive protein levels by 40 percent after only ten days of eating broccoli.
  • Sulforaphane, a potent chemical in crucifers, has been shown in vitro to protect cartilage from destruction.
  • When studied in people instead of a petri dish, sulforaphane was indeed detected in the synovial fluid of osteoarthritis patients after broccoli consumption.

For more on natural treatments for arthritis, see:

What’s that sulforaphane stuff I mentioned? Check out:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

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