Arnica is a traditional medicine with a defined ability to affect the body, both good and bad. It's a powerful little plant that, when used properly and in moderation, may be able to help with a wide range of issues including swelling and inflammation. When used improperly, it can be quite dangerous. So what is it, specifically? What can you use it for, and how well does it work?
All About Arnica
Arnica is the casual name for the plant scientifically known as Arnica montana, which has a whole host of other names as well. See if you recognize any of these:
- Arnica cordifolia, Arnica des Montagnes, Arnica Flos, Arnica Flower, Arnica fulgens, Arnica latifolia, Arnica montana, Arnica sororia, Arnikabluten, Bergwohlverieih, Doronic d'Allemagne, Fleurs d'Arnica, Herbe aux Chutes, Herbe aux Prêcheurs, Kraftwurz, Leopard's Bane, Mountain Snuff, Mountain Tobacco, Plantin des Alpes, Quinquina des Pauvres, Souci des Alpes, Tabac des Savoyards, Tabac des Vosges, Wolf's Bane, Wundkraut. – From RXList
Several of these are just alternative scientific names, several are names in other languages where the herb is found, and a few are names that apply to several different plants in different regions. The common name you're likely most familiar with, Arnica montana, likely comes from the scientific classification of the herb as it was found in Montana, even though it is also common in eastern Europe and even Siberia.
Arnica is a distantly related member of the sunflower family, and as such, can be recognized by its tall, singular stalk, opposing leaves, and large, yellow flower. Not that many of you are likely to be out looking for the herb in the wild. In fact, we recommend always sticking with processed supplements rather than fresh-picked herbs for this sort of thing. You never know what might have been in the soil where the herb grew, or what potency it has attained in a wild setting.
Many traditional herbal remedies have a broad list of ailments they "treat", and a much, much smaller list of ailments they can actually treat, as proven by science. Arnica is a little different.
Arnica is a decidedly real herbal remedy, but its effects may be dangerous if the herb is used improperly. This is because the active ingredient in Arnica is a compound known as Helenalin.
Helenalin is a bioactive compound, meaning it has an effect on the body. It's also toxic. When applied topically to the skin, it can have medicinal effects but can cause an allergic reaction in sensitive people. When ingested, it can cause diarrhea, muscle paralysis, liver damage, and damage to the heart.
This is the plight of the herbal remedy. A traditional herbal remedy affects the body in several ways, some good, some bad, and walking that line is the crucial step which was usually the responsibility of witches, shamans, herbalists, and now modern-day alternative healing gurus and holistic health consultants.
So, what can Arnica treat, and how can it be used?
There are generally two ways you'll find Arnica in use. The first is as a topical cream. As a medicinal lotion, Arnica has the ability to affect the skin and, to a certain degree, penetrate it to affect the tissue beneath. The other option is a much more dilute, homeopathic preparation in the form of a pill or capsule. These may have very little effect medically, though they may have some minor benefits to the body when you're in distress. It also may have a more pronounced and beneficial effect on children, though you should be aware of the potential side effects if you administer it to a child.
What Arnica is Purported to Treat
Arnica has been used throughout history to treat a wide range of ailments, much like any traditional medicine. Unlike most, however, Arnica is definitely effective for certain ailments, and as such, the range of what it is commonly used for has dropped.
Bruising. The common topical application of arnica has a variety of effects on the skin and on the flesh beneath the surface. Bruising is one of the more common side-effects of damage to the flesh, and Arnica may be able to help reduce that effect. Arnica can thin the blood, and thinner blood more easily leaves damaged flesh. This may or may not be a benefit; while the cosmetic appearance of a bruise is bad, that blood is performing an important duty in healing the area, so flushing it away might reduce healing. It's difficult to say. Some studies have shown topical Arnica to reduce bruising.
Swelling. One of the most defined benefits of Arnica is as an anti-inflammatory. Reducing swelling and inflammation is one of the core abilities of Arnica as a medical treatment. It has been used for this purpose, for wound care and symptom control, for centuries. Modern studies have shown that Arnica is effective at reducing swelling in post-surgical settings, as well as in-home use.
Pain. The other defined side effect of Arnica is as an analgesic. Some studies have shown that, in terms of pain relief, Arnica as a topical cream can be nearly as effective as ibuprofen in certain situations. It's not a reliable and easy replacement for ibuprofen for every situation, and their mechanisms of action are very different, but if you're suffering from certain kinds of pain, Arnica can be a great option.
Insect Bites. Insect bites are generally a combination of three symptoms: swelling, itching, and pain. Arnica can be effective at taking care of swelling and pain and can help reduce the itching caused by the toxin in the bug bite. Of course, how effective it works depends a lot on your own body's reaction to the bug bite, as well as what kind of bug it was that bit you. Fire ant bites are very different from mosquito bites, for example.
Arthritis. Arthritis is an inflammation of the joints, swelling, and causing pain as bones grind against one another rather than against the lubricating cartilage that is usually present. Since arthritis is primarily caused by swelling, an application of topical Arnica to the affected joints is an effective treatment of the symptoms. Arnica cannot cure arthritis – and there are hundreds of varieties of arthritis in the first place – but it can help manage the symptoms without needing to take oral medication.
Acne. As a skin condition, some people have used topical Arnica to treat the symptoms of acne. Acne is an infection of the pores in the skin, and while Arnica is not used to treat that infection, it can lessen the symptoms. In particular, swelling caused by the infection and redness caused by the inflammation can both be reduced with the application of Arnica.
Arnica may also be used for other ailments, both external and internal, but to little effect. Arnica has a defined method of action, and anything outside of that method of action likely won't be affected by the remedy. For example, Arnica cannot treat cancer, and it serves as a minor pain reliever at best for sprains, broken bones, and strains.
Arnica Side Effects and Warnings
Arnica is bioactive, which means it has a real effect, which means it can have side effects. You are not guaranteed to get these side effects if you use it, of course, but these are things to watch out for.
One thing to remember is that topical applications of Arnica generally have very few side effects. In fact, there is only one:
Arnica can cause contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis is an irritation of the skin where a specific chemical comes into contact with it. It typically presents as a rash, hives, or an outbreak of acne, and is often treated with topical antihistamines or oral antihistamines, as well as other relief creams. Arnica affects the skin, but some people are sensitive to it and will react poorly. As with any skin cream, we wholly recommend that you test the cream in an out-of-the-way location, such as the inside of your wrist, before applying it somewhere more sensitive like your face.
Other side effects of Arnica all apply to oral ingestion of Arnica supplements. Again, you may not experience any of these, but you might, so it's worth watching for them.
Arnica can prevent blood from clotting. Arnica is an effective anticoagulant. This means that it can prevent open wounds from clotting and healing, including surface cuts and internal tears. It also means that it interacts with medications meant to affect blood clotting. More on that later.
Arnica can cause gastrointestinal distress. Because of the toxicity of the active compound Helenalin, Arnica can cause damage to the digestive tract. This can manifest as stomach discomfort, cramps, diarrhea, gastroenteritis, and other issues.
Arnica can cause damage to the liver. As a toxin, Helenalin is processed through the blood and the liver to be removed from the body. Too much of the compound can cause damage to the liver. Of course, many standard medications are as bad or worse on the liver, which processes all of them anyways.
Arnica can cause damage to the heart. Another side effect of Arnica is muscle paralysis. This can apply to any muscle in the body. While this might be minimal or invisible in a large and less critical muscle like the muscles in your torso or legs, it can be extremely damaging to the heart.
Arnica is mutagenic. A mutagen is any chemical that can permanently change genetic material. Many mutagens are carcinogens, as cancer is a mutation of normal DNA, but not all mutagens cause cancer. Arnica has been identified as a mutagen, but no studies have been performed into what exactly that means or does. This is because the test to see whether or not a chemical is a mutagen is applied to bacteria, and no further study can be done on mutated bacteria typically because they die.
Once again, Arnica is generally safe topically, and the majority of these side effects only apply to high doses of ingested Arnica. If you're taking a homeopathically low dose of Arnica as a supplement, you likely won't experience any of them.
Medication Interactions of Arnica
As mentioned above, Arnica is a blood thinner, which means it can interact with any other medication that thins the blood, promotes clotting, or inhibits clotting. Aspirin, Warfarin, Dabigatran, Clopidogrel, and other such medications are all of that classification. Consult your doctor if you're taking Arnica and are prescribed a blood thinner, or if you're taking a blood thinner and want to take Arnica.
Should You Use Arnica?
Arnica is known to be effective primarily as an anti-inflammatory and a pain reliever. It is also generally the most effective in the form of a topical cream.
If you have arthritis, joint pain, muscle aches, soreness, or surface-level inflammation, chances are that Arnica as a gel or topical cream can be effective at helping you manage those symptoms. As with any medical treatment, make sure to buy your Arnica gel from a reputable seller, and make sure to only use it as directed. Additionally, make sure to test a small amount of the gel in a safe space to make sure it doesn't trigger contact dermatitis.
For most other ailments, Arnica is not a proven effective treatment. You can try it, but make sure you're safe when you do so. Arnica can be dangerous when used improperly, so be very careful with it, especially when you have ailments like digestive issues, internal bleeding, or sensitivity in the first place.
We recommend Arnica as a topical treatment for use as a powerful anti-inflammatory to reduce swelling. If you've ever tried Arnica, either ours or another brand's, feel free to leave us a comment about it in the comments section below. Anecdotal evidence can often help others make a decision about whether or not they want to try a particular treatment, so your story can be quite valuable to all of us. We can't wait to hear your thoughts on it!