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Study shows the healing power of a poison oak

In a recent study, scientists have reported that the extract of the plant Toxicodendron pubescens, commonly called the Atlantic poison oak, could help alleviate neuropathic pain caused by nerve damage. The study included researchers from the R. C. Patel Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research, Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology, SVKM’s Institute of Pharmacy, Janmangal Homeopathy and Wellness Centre and UAE University. It was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Neuropathic pain is caused by damage or disease in parts of our nervous system perceiving various sensations. Thanks to the increase in the ageing population, survivors from cancer chemotherapy and the incidence of diabetes, this condition is now prevalent. Although there are a few anti-neuropathic drugs, they are not effective for pain management and pose various side effects. “The efficacy of available anti-neuropathic drugs is limited due to occurrence of several side effects and inadequate or delayed pain relief”, say the researchers.

For their study, the researchers, induced a neuropathic pain-like condition in laboratory rats by surgical lesions and treated them with the extract of the Atlantic poison oak. The extracts of the plant has been already used in alternative system of medicines, like homeopathy, for treating inflammatory conditions, rheumatic pain and typhoid fever. This is the first such attempt to test their efficacy on neuropathic pain.

What causes nerve injury and pain? Oxidative stress—an imbalance between harmful free radicals generated in the body and our ability to detoxify their effects, and inflammation, are some factors that could lead to nerve injury and persistent pain in the nerves. Enzymes like catalase, which catalyses the decomposition of hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen, and superoxide dismutase, an antioxidant enzyme, protect us from oxidative stress by scavenging the harmful free radicals. When there is a nerve injury, the levels of these enzyme decrease in the body.

The study found that the extract of the Atlantic poison oak had antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that could alleviate neuropathic pain. When the injured rats were treated with the plant extract, it could revive the levels of catalase and superoxide dismutase. The researchers also observed that some cytokines (signaling molecules) of the immune system, which are released following nerve injury and contribute to the development of neuropathic pain, were also inhibited by the plant extract.

This study shows how the extract of Toxicodendron pubescens, also called Rhus Tox (RT), can help control neuropathic pain in laboratory rats. The researchers suggest the need for further pre-clinical and clinical studies to confirm its potential therapeutic use in humans.  “Results of the present study are suggestive of the effect of RT extract against neuropathic pain and deserve further validation of its effectiveness in various painful conditions”, conclude the researchers.