What Is It?
Health Benefits
Dosage Information
General Interaction
Possible Side Effects

What Is It?

Native to Europe and southern Russia, Arnica montana is a perennial plant with bright yellow, daisylike flowers. Some of its common names include leopard's bane, wolf's bane, and mountain tobacco. Arnica montana has a long history of use in herbal healing, as do other arnica species grown in the western part of North America. The dried flower heads and occasionally the underground stems and roots are the source of medicinal arnica.

Although arnica has been used for many years both internally and externally, research has raised serious concerns about its safety as an internal remedy, and experts worldwide now strongly discourage its oral use. But applied topically, arnica still enjoys wide popularity, particularly in Europe. It is also the most widely studied formulation in homeopathy, a system of medicine that uses tremendously diluted amounts of the active substance.

Health Benefits

Arnica in such topical formulations as creams, gels, and ointments is extremely popular in Europe (well-known products include Arnica Kneipp Gel and Vasotonin Gel, for example). A 1981 German study identified the plant's active ingredients as sesquiterpene lactones. These substances act as counterirritants, which means that they produce a stimulating sensation that boosts circulation in the area where the arnica is applied.

The herb's active ingredients also have mild pain-relieving, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial actions. One of arnica's primary components, helenalin, also has a strong anti-edemic (anti-swelling) effect. Given these qualities, it's little surprise that traditional healers recommend applying a cold compress soaked in tincture of arnica to reduce bruising.

Historically, herbalists used arnica to prepare teas and tinctures they believed would benefit a wide range of ailments, from anemia and depression to heart disease. But it was eventually discovered that even small amounts of arnica (except for super-diluted homeopathic formulations) can irritate mucous membranes, cause vomiting and diarrhea, and lead to drowsiness.

Although arnica is poisonous when taken internally, it is used in highly diluted homeopathic formulations. In these tiny tablets or pellets, which are dissolved under the tongue, the arnica has been diluted literally hundreds of times, so at homeopathic levels poisoning is virtually impossible. Recent studies have cast doubt on the remedy's effectiveness, however. A 1998 Archives of Surgery review of placebo-controlled clinical trials of homeopathic arnica concluded that on balance, there is no solid evidence that arnica offers any real benefit. The authors further noted that the more scientifically rigorous, or best-designed, studies tended to show the negative findings.

Arnica is also used in more than 100 cosmetic formulations that appear in a wide range of products, including hair tonics, anti-dandruff products, and perfumes. A 2001 article in the International Journal of Toxicology reported that so far, there is not enough data to assess the safety of using arnica in cosmetics.

Specifically, topical arnica is most commonly used for:

  • Muscle strains and sprains. Arnica is widely applied to ease the inflammation and pain of muscle strains and sprains caused by overuse or injury. Although results have been contradictory, some studies concluded that for a short period immediately following a marathon run, arnica reduced muscle soreness. The effect was only temporary, however.

  • Arthritic joints. Inflamed and painful joints are said to benefit from arnica as well. Using the herb in a hot, moist compress may be helpful for arthritis pain, though it is not known whether it is simply the heat or the arnica that provides the relief.

  • Psoriasis and eczema. Numerous herbal formulas for these persistent skin disorders contain extracts of arnica, which may help given its anti-inflammatory and numbing qualities.

  • Insect bites. Because of its anti-inflammatory and antiseptic effects, topical arnica is believed to reduce the swelling and pain caused by insect bites. It may also help prevent infection.

  • Forms

    • tincture
    • spray
    • ointment
    • oil
    • liquid
    • gel
    • cream

    Dosage Information

    Special tips: --If you'd like to try topical arnica, for the greatest effectiveness look for an arnica cream containing approximately 15% arnica oil.

  • For muscle strains and sprains: Apply arnica cream, gel, or ointment every 3-4 hours to the affected area.

  • For arthritic joints: Apply arnica cream, gel, or ointment every 3-4 hours to the affected area.

  • For psoriasis and eczema: Use the cream form of arnica; apply to affected area twice daily.

  • For insect bites: Use cream or ointment; apply every 3-4 hours as needed to relieve symptoms.

    Be sure to check out our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Arnica, which lists therapeutic dosages for specific ailments at a glance.

  • General Interaction

    There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with arnica when applied topically.

    Possible Side Effects

    When used frequently or for long periods, arnica can cause contact dermatitis or eczema.


  • Don't take arnica internally except in accepted homeopathic dosages. As little as 1 ounce of arnica tincture taken orally can cause shortness of breath, raise blood pressure, and damage the heart. High doses can be fatal.

  • Don't apply any form of arnica to broken or bleeding skin.

  • As with any herbal remedy, arnica can cause an allergic reaction, a rash called contact dermatitis, when it's applied to the skin. Avoid this herb if you are sensitive to arnica or to any plant in the daisy family.

  • Be sure to use only the recommended amount of topical arnica. If too much is applied, or if it's used for too long, topical arnica can cause redness, swelling, itching, and blisters.

  • Some sources recommend using a diluted arnica tincture or tea as a gargle for reducing sore throat-related inflammation. If you choose to use arnica in this way, be extremely careful not to swallow it. Safer alternatives are certainly available..

  • Date Published: 04/18/2005
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