The Arnica Cure

By Victoria Dolby Toews, MPH

The cheery yellow flowers of Europe’s native arnica plant (Arnica montana) have “had a place in folk medicine for hundreds of years,” says Laurie Steelsmith, ND, LAc, author of Natural Choices for Women’s Health (Three Rivers Press, 2005), “helping those who suffer from bruises, contusions, joint pains, or any kind of physical trauma.” We now know this age-old healing herb contains compounds called sesquiterpene lactones that reduce inflammation by dispersing fluids that build up in bruised tissues—and fortify the immune system. You can find several forms of arnica in natural markets or health food stores. The type you choose will depend on the kind of ailment you have. But “arnica, in all its forms, is an excellent remedy that everyone should keep on hand in the medicine cabinet,” Steelsmith says. A word of caution, though: Only the homeopathic form should be taken internally. Ingesting the other forms can cause tremors, dizziness, vomiting, and heart problems. Also, avoid the topical forms if you have an allergy to arnica or to related plants (like chamomile or marigolds). While not dangerous, it can cause a rash or itching.

1. Homeopathic remedies. This very dilute form of the herb earns high marks for treating all manner of bruised and traumatized tissues, as well as emotional upset. It also stands out for speeding healing after surgery. In a study in the Archives of Facial Plastic Surgery, women who took arnica eight hours before they underwent a face-lift and for four days thereafter showed significantly less bruising around their incisions. Homeopathic arnica comes as a liquid or sugar pellets, though you can also find homeopathic creams. Typical doses are 6c, 12c, or 30c, says Steelsmith, and protocols often call for three pellets under the tongue three times a day for a few days, or until symptoms disappear.

2. Tinctures. Made by soaking the flower heads in alcohol for a few weeks, tinctures reduce inflammation and ease the pain of bruises, strains, or joints. Since you apply a tincture directly to the injury, it produces faster, more acute relief than the homeopathic form. You can use the two forms concurrently to boost healing locally and systemically. To make a compress, mix 1 to 2 teaspoons of tincture in 2 ounces of very warm water. Dip a cotton cloth in the arnica water, and place it on the afflicted area (avoiding open wounds). Leave the compress on for a few hours; you can cover it with plastic wrap and then a stretchy bandage to keep it in place. Apply it for no more than a few hours a day, and stop altogether if your skin develops a rash.

3. Creams and gels. These contain arnica tincture and provide similar benefits. Their main advantage is convenience—you simply squeeze them onto the sore area. You also can find arnica creams and gels that contain other healing herbs, like St. John’s wort and comfrey. Arnica gel actually has been shown to ease osteoarthritic pain just as well as the conventional pain reliever. Gels and creams work best when applied several times a day, starting as soon as possible after the injury or onset of pain.

4. Essential oils. These are principally used as therapeutic massage oils. Dilute 20 to 30 drops of the arnica essential oil in 8 ounces of massage oil and “apply a thin layer to be massaged into sore, aching muscles or gently onto a bruised area,” says Steelsmith. Also note that pure arnica essential oil is poisonous—it must be highly diluted in a carrier oil and shouldn’t be used in aromatherapy diffusers. Several manufacturers produce very safe, ready-to-use massage oils containing arnica.