What is Arnica?
Since ancient times, humans have used the healing power of flowers and herbs to cure various ailments. Arnica is one of these herbs that have many benefits to our health. If you’ve heard of leopard’s bane, mountain tobacco, or wolf’s bane, what people are actually referring to is the Arnica montana plant, the proper botanical name for this medicinal herb (x).
This native European plant lives in the mountains of Siberia and grows buds of bright yellow flowers (x, x). Their fuzzy round stems can grow up to 1-2 feet (x). It is part of the Asteraceae family, which is in the same family that sunflowers and daisies come from. The flowers and its rhizomes are useful for medicinal purposes. However, the flower is what sparks the most interest for therapeutic purposes (x). Since the 1500s, dried forms or extracts of this herb were helpful in healing wounds (x). Today, it may be able to help reduce inflammation after surgery (x).
History of Arnica
Even centuries ago before modern medicine, arnica was a plant with great uses to cure various ailments, most often bruising, wounds and inflammatory conditions (x). Root plasters treated tumors, foot baths containing the tincture helped relieve tender feet and many believed that application to the scalp could treat baldness (x). At some point, arnica was also a common treatment for mouth sores like canker sores or gingivitis. But now, it’s no longer recommended, as we know how dangerous it can be when ingested (x).
The first reference of arnica in medicine came in 1533 by Hildegard of Bingen, who was a German philosopher and physician considered to be an important contributor of science and medicine in German history (x, x).
It may seem like just a yellow daisy, but arnica possesses powerful active ingredients within its brightly colored buds. For example, sesquiterpene lactones are molecules that decrease inflammation by binding to the genetic components of our immune cells (x). By doing so, they can regulate expression of various proteins that directly affect our immune system and its action on our tissues (x). These lactones are the basis behind arnica’s healing properties.
There are many traditional and modern uses for arnica as a medicinal therapy. Its effects as an anti-inflammatory make it a great candidate for wounds and other injuries. Most of the time, the flower can be of use regardless of whether it’s fresh or dry. Below are some common ways arnica can remedy ailments.
Care After Surgery
One of the oldest homeopathic uses for arnica is to cure bruising from small injuries. Arnica reduces swelling and promotes recovery, which is theoretically how it traditionally helps heal bruises. Recently, arnica has been used to reduce bruising and swelling after surgical operations (x). However, the scientific data supporting this benefit is scarce. One clinical trial actually found that it did not do better than placebo in patients recovering from hand surgery (x). Other studies, though, have deemed it as effective in reducing bruising after laser treatments (x) and rhinoplasty surgeries (x). Thus, it seems like the jury is still out when it comes to the benefit of using arnica after an operation.
In folk medicine, arnica was useful for many centuries to help relieve joint pain and muscle aches (x). Not only does this plant seem to help with aging joints, but it may improve pain and swelling in autoimmune disorders too. One study found that arnica montana was able to reduce inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis in an experimental rat model through it’s anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties (x). Another study revealed that tinctures of arnica were effective in suppressing enzymes responsible for joint and cartilage destruction in laboratory experiments (x).
Back Pain Relief
Chronic back pain is one of the most common symptoms people visit a doctor for. People with back pain often find pain medications increasingly less effective, and the pain often keeps them from doing the things that they love. Arnica montana may be able to alleviate muscle aches, especially after high intensity exercise (x). One review found that a homeopathic complex that contained arnica Montana was helpful in alleviating chronic low back pain due to arthritis (x). However, the scientific data available to support its use for back pain remains extremely limited.
May Alleviate Hormonal Headaches
There’s no scientific data for arnica use in treating headaches, but some homeopathic practitioners support this claim. One patient reported relief of migraines and hormonal headaches immediately upon starting arnica homeopathy (x). Although it’s only one person’s experience, the effectiveness this patient experienced can not be passed over.
Other Traditional Uses
Arnica can treat a wide variety of simple injuries or ailments. Besides those already mentioned, it can be helpful in healing insect bites, sore muscles, simple sprains and reduce swelling in broken bones. It may also improve the condition of our hair and skin (x). Besides tinctures, ointments and creams, you can find arnica as a compress, poultice or gel too (x). Less commonly, people use oral forms of arnica. However, because arnica can be very potent and have serious side effects, it’s best to avoid oral ingestion of this homeopathic therapy.
Arnica Dosage and Side Effects
Preparations are administered topically rather than orally due to the side effects of ingesting arnica (x, x). Extract powders are available, but take an extra, easy step to prepare the treatment. If working with arnica extract powder, simply add 50 ml of warm water to two teaspoons of powder to prepare a usable solution (x). Do not ever ingest arnica extract powder. It can be highly toxic and even fatal.
How to Use Arnica Topically
Most people rub this treatment into sore or painful areas of their body as a topical regimen. Side effects associated with topical use include blistering, irritation, peeling and eczema (x). Never use arnica on an open wound or broken skin. If you’re allergic to other plants and herbs, be cautious about using arnica. Other flowers related to the same family include sunflowers, marigold and ragweed (x).
Why Use Arnica?
If you’ve been trying to find an herb that is good for inflammation, look no further. It’s possible that arnica plants have a natural ability to ward off bacteria and decrease inflammation. However, most of these conclusions are drawn only from what we see in laboratory experiments (x).
Dangers of Ingesting Arnica
This herb is incredibly strong, so most therapies are given in an extremely diluted form. Never take arnica by mouth unless directed by your doctor, because there can be severe side effects associated with ingestion. These side effects include dizziness, tremors and heart problems. Irritation of your digestive tract can cause vomiting, and larger doses can be fatal.
There is no safety data for taking arnica while pregnant. However, if you’re pregnant, it’s best to avoid using it altogether (x). If you’re breast-feeding, it’s also best to avoid this medicinal herb. Although safety data is lacking, there was a case reported in which a baby developed hemolytic anemia because of arnica (x). It may also increase the effects of blood thinners such as warfarin, putting you at a higher risk of bleeding (x). If you’re taking other medications, talk to your doctor before using this supplement.
The Bottom Line
Arnica is a medicinal flowering plant that has been in use for centuries for its natural anti-inflammatory and antibacterial effects. It can be extremely potent, so be sure to avoid oral consumption. Arnica is helpful for muscle aches, soreness, arthritis and headaches. It’s also helpful to reduce bruising and swelling after a surgery. Most of the effects of arnica are traditional, with lack of scientific data to support its true efficacy.
When used topically, it is generally safe as long as you don’t use this remedy on any open ulcers or broken skin. Side effects of using topical arnica can involve peeling, burning and other signs of skin irritation. Those allergic to ragweed or related pollens may also be allergic to arnica.
Be careful when using this supplement if you’re pregnant or breast-feeding. As a general rule of thumb, never use it as an ingested supplement. If you have any concerns, always consult with your doctor before using arnica for homeopathy.