An increasing number of people are turning to arnica to treat sprains, bruises, sore muscles, and the aches and pains of arthritis. This plant in the daisy family, with bright yellow flowers, has been used medicinally throughout Europe for centuries. Today, you can find a range of arnica products at pharmacies and health-food stores—ointments, creams, and gels, as well as tablets and pellets, often in homeopathic (extremely diluted) doses. Here we focus on the topical products.
Arnica: a “miracle remedy”?
Arnica has shown antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and pain-relieving properties in many lab and animal studies. But studies in people have been a mixed bag. They have often been of poor quality, looked at different conditions, used different preparations, and have had inconsistent and usually unimpressive results. Much of the “evidence” comes instead from anecdotal reports.
A Swiss study in Rheumatology International back in 2007 compared arnica gel to a topical nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory gel (ibuprofen, 5 percent strength) in people with osteoarthritis in the hands. Both gels, used three times a day for three weeks, improved pain, stiffness, and hand function equally, with about half the participants having a “good” or “very good” response. The researchers concluded that “topical application of arnica gel can be regarded as an alternative to ibuprofen gel when treating osteoarthritis of the hand joints.” However, the evidence about ibuprofen gel is also inconsistent, and neither may be better than a placebo.
According to the Natural Standard, arnica gets only a “C” grade (unclear or conflicting evidence) for arthritis, pain after surgery, bruising, and trauma, and a “D” (fair negative evidence) for muscle soreness.
Topical arnica is considered safe, provided you avoid high concentrations for long periods of time and heed other caveats (see below). At the very least, the act of rubbing it in may provide some relief. The biggest risk is to your pocketbook.
- Don’t apply arnica on broken skin, or around the eyes or other mucous membranes.
- Don’t use it if you are allergic to plants in the same family as arnica, including marigolds, chamomile, yarrow, ragweed, and chrysanthemums. Topical arnica can cause skin rashes (contact dermatitis) in some people.
- Arnica comes in different formulations and concentrations; there is no standardized or recommended dose. Products you buy may not even penetrate the skin and may contain other ingredients of unknown effectiveness and safety.
- Don’t take arnica by mouth; high doses are toxic and have been linked to stomach irritation, as well as shortness of breath, rapid heart beat, and even coma. Though homeopathic products are very diluted (often containing virtually no active ingredient), you don’t really know what you’re getting.
Also see Bromelain for Joint Pain.