Valued throughout Europe as a soothing treatment for both physical and mental traumas, arnica has been in use since the days of the Roman Empire.
Anyone who has ever spent a summer holiday in the Alps will certainly have come across mountain arnica (Arnica Montana), which grows abundantly in the high pastures. The plant is found throughout the mountainous areas of central and northern Europe, at altitudes between 1,200 and 2,800 metres (4000-9200 ft). its flowers look rather like a paler version of the pot marigold, with its leaves grouped at the base of the stem.
The plant is also found in the mountainous regions of Canada and the northern USA and was a favourite herb with the early settlers. It is not native to the UK however, although it has been seen in Scotland, possibly having escaped from a cultivated garden. There is therefore little traditional use of arnica in Britain and it is missing from most of the classic herbal texts. Arnica has recently become commonly used in the home, however, principally as a homoeopathic remedy, or in the form of a cream as an external treatment for bruises, swellings and sprains.
Arnica has such a diversity of uses that no home medicine chest should be without it, particularly if there are children in the house since it is ideal for treating the bumps and bruises of childhood. But if not handled properly it can also be extremely toxic and should be used with caution(See box).
European materia medica have listed mountain arnica as a valuable medicinal plant for centuries, it is used both in herbal medicine and homoeopathy. The flowers, leaves and roots are all used – both externally as ointments and lotions and internally in teas and tinctures, as well as homoeopathic pistules.
Arnica is also known as mountain tobacco, and in France tradition has it that a phial of arnica carried in the pocket will help you give up smoking.
Europeans take arnica internally as a stimulant for the nervous system and circulation and also in treating atherosclerosis (clogging of the arteries) and high blood pressure. It can also be used in cases of paralysis and epilepsy.
The herb is sometimes given in very small doses during pregnancy, to help prevent varicose veins, but as it can also act as a uterine stimulant this type of treatment must be supervised by a trained herbal specialist.
In herbal texts arnica infusion for internal use is given as a maximum of 5 grains (2 teaspoons) of arnica leaves or flowers to one litre (2 pints) of water – a substantially weaker mix than for other herbs. Homoeopathic remedies are made from very diluted arnica tincture and because of arnica's possible toxicity, it is much safer to use such commercial preparations.
Arnica is probably one of the most widely used homoeopathic remedies. For bad falls and bruising it is best to combine homoeopathic arnica internally with an arnica ointment as an external remedy – but not if the skin is broken for it can cause severe irritation. It appears to relieve bruising by causing reabsorption of internal bleeding.
Sprains can be treated in exactly the same way – internal homoeopathic doses of arnica plus an application of arnica ointment to open wounds. taking arnica tablets internally does help in cases of bleeding – be it from a cut, injury or even nosebleed. Homoeopaths also recommend arnica for black eyes – not ointment this time, but internal doses of the remedy which should be taken until the bruising and swelling subsides.
Soothing Effects of Arnica
Homoeopathic arnica can also assist recovery from any sort of trauma of shock – be it mental or physical. Cases of physical exhaustion and weakness, or the insomnia that may result from over-tiredness can all benefit from arnica. To relieve fatigue and aching muscles relax in a hot bath that contains two teaspoon added to a foot bath will ease tired feet.
In France, arnica is known as the herbe des chutes (a chute is a fall) because of its value in any sort of accidental upset. As well as being a useful remedy for shock it also assists the natural healing process and regular doses of homoeopathic arnica tablets (usually one tablet taken at half-hourly intervals is adequate) after an operation really do speed recovery. It can just as readily be taken after a trip to the dentist, especially after an extraction and homoeopathic arnica is also often given immediately after childbirth, repeating the dose every 15 minutes until the mother feels comfortable. Not only does it help to relieve sore muscles and bruising but can also speed healing if there has been an episiotomy.
The German writer Johann von Goethe once claimed that his life was saved when he took arnica – a traditional European remedy for the treatment of fevers – while he was suffering from a particularly high fever which had failed to respond to any other form of treatment.
Although arnica has been known as a diaphoretic (stimulating perspiration) for centuries, recent research also suggests that it has an anti-bacterial action and can stimulate the immune system via the white blood cells.
As an alternative to ointments and lotions, a hot compress of arnica can be applied to bruises and boils. Add two tablespoons of arnica flowers (about 10-15 grams) to a litre (1¾ pints) of water and boil for five minutes. Then soak a compress in the infusion and apply while still hot. This should not be used if the skin is broken.
In Germany, beer rather than water was often used for arnica compresses. The French apply the same sort of compresses to soothe sore throats and treat laryngitis, while in the USA these compresses are used for stomach pains.
Arnica tincture still appears in the official French pharmacopoeia and is made by macerating 50 g (2 oz) of the flowerheads in 250 ml (9 fl oz) of 602 alcohol is a stoppered jar for 10 days. The jar should be shaken from time to time and the tincture finely filtered or pressed.
Although the tincture should be stored at this concentration it must be substantially diluted before use: for compresses, add a teaspoon (5 ml) of tincture to a tumbler of hot water.
HAZARDS OF ARNICA
Despite its obvious advantage, it must be remembered that arnica is poisonous in large, or undiluted, doses – it irritates the digestive tract and kidneys and excessive doses can lead to vomiting and dizziness. If arnica is taken internally, ideally it should be as a homoeopathic dose, or prescribed by a qualified herbalist or homoeopath – it is much better to opt for patent preparations than to risk brewing up arnica flowers yourself.
It should never be applied to broken skin so care must be taken, when treating bruises. Sensitivity to arnica can vary enormously between individuals and even if there is no wound some people quickly develop skin rashes with arnica ointments or creams. It is always wise to test it first on a small area of skin.
KEEP YOUR HAIR ON
Among its many attributes arnica has also been created with boosting hair growth. It is sometimes used in lotion or ointment form or added to the final rinse after shampooing. In cases where hair loss is mild, such as after an illness, arnica can stimulate the regrowth of hair.
Again, only diluted mixtures should be used (see compresses), but stop if there is any skin irritation.
ARNICA IN LABOUR
Arnica is often prescribed for the woman in labour. If the woman is suffering from exhaustion during a long labour, arnica can not only relieve the aches and pains of physical exertion, but also help the woman to overcome the shock and trauma experienced during the birth process.
Arnica is also invaluable after delivery as it enables the mother to recover from the experience more quickly and it can also help to reduce swelling and bruising and the discomfort of stitches.
Pregnant women should always seek professional advice before taking arnica, however – and recommended doses should never be exceeded.