What is it?
The bright yellow flowers, gathered from the mountain-growing, long-lived, beautiful Arnica montana
How has it been used?
There are many poisonous herbs that people have learned how to use as medicines. In olden times Arnica was used extensively for people with heart weaknesses. Swiss mountain folk, to ease sore and aching limbs, knew how to chew a small amount of Arnica leaf to ease their pain.
Arnica has also been widely used as an external treatment to reduce pain and swelling and this is almost exclusively how it is still used today.
Rudolph Weiss M.D writes 'Arnica is certainly one of the major medicinal plants, the comprehensive effects of which are not even properly appreciated in phytotherapy. The Commission E recommended it only for a number of topical indications (e.g. traumatic oedema, hematoma, dislocation, contusion) and for rheumatic myositis conditions in which Arnica is definitely able to achieve outstanding therapeutic results. Internal use, especially in indications such as coronary heart disease and for acute treatment of angina pectoris (which Goethe highly recommended) is not even mentioned in the Commission E monographs.
One reason for this is that the commission completely over-rated the hypersensitivity of isolated patients to Arnica. Allergic reactions are generally common for Compositae plants but they are by no means a sufficient justification for contra-indication. This is especially true for Arnica, particularly when administered in very high doses since a variety of dose-dependent toxic effects ranging from dizziness, trembling, tachycardia and arrhythmia to collapse can occur.
Arnica should, of course be very cautiously dosed or replaced with another drug in patients with known composite allergies. In the majority of cases, however, Arnica is extremely well tolerated when administered internally. We prescribe the drug very frequently, have never had a single case of acute adverse effects and have only heard reports of such effects in isolated cases.
Anginal complaints are the most important indication for Arnica. Although Arnica can improve coronary circulation in much the same way as Hawthorn it is significantly different from Hawthorn. One of the most pronounced differences is Arnica's rapid-onset stimulatory effect. Arnica is therefore preferred for treatment of acute cardiac debility and angina pectoris.
Hawthorn, on the other hand, is better suited for long-term treatment of coronary heart disease. This is also the case in the aging heart without manifest heart muscle insufficiency. Arnica can be considered for short-term relief of debility. Hawthorn should be used, however, if the objective of treatment is to relieve milder symptoms or to achieve a preventive effect.
Weiss goes on to recommend doses of 5-10 drops of the tincture, or one cup of hot water over 2 tsps. of the flowers, steeped for 10 minutes and sipped slowly twice a day. For acute angina he recommends 50 drops of Arnica tincture in a glass of lukewarm water, the solution sipped slowly over 15 minutes. He also says that good results can be obtained using a warm, wet Arnica compress over the heart region.
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Science on Arnica
~ In a placebo-controlled, double-blind and randomised study of 89 patients with pronounced symptoms of chronic venous insufficiency, after three weeks Arnica gel (containing 20% Arnica tincture) improved the feeling of heaviness in the legs compared with placebo, improved venous tone and reduced fluid retention. The effectiveness of Arnica in the treatment of symptoms associated with varicose veins is believed to be due to a protective effect against oedema. (Quartz P, Landgrebe W, Wohling D et al. Paper presented at the 6th Phytotherapy Congress, Berlin, Oct 5-7, 1995)
~ Arnica gel was more effective than placebo when applied externally for muscle ache in a clinical trial involving male volunteers. (Moog-Schulze JB: Tijdschr Integr Geneeskunde 9:105-112, 1993)
~ Extensive laboratory research into Arnica has yielded a number of mechanisms to explain its pronounced anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects: a) it has a direct effect on how certain white blood cells (polymorphonuclear neutrophils) are able to be damaged b) an energy enzyme (cAMP) is increased in the liver and in the white blood cells c) tissue breakdown enzymes are reduced in liver and white blood cells and d) a chemical involved in producing inflammatory responses is reduced (transcription factor NF-kappa B). (Lyb G et al: Pharm Pharmacol Lett 9(1):5-8, 1999)
Safety of Arnica
All herbal texts written in English will strongly state that Arnica is a poisonous herb that must not be taken internally. I do not think that Arnica should be used to self-medicate but to any herbalists reading this I will say that I disagree with this black and white prohibition and I say that, like our herbal forebears from many generations, we owe our understanding on how to use it safely to our patients who may suffer terribly from acute heart pain but who are unable, or for their own reasons unwilling, to take pharmaceutical drugs.
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We make our own Arnica tincture from organic dried flowers and use this frequently in external creams and compresses. I have had plenty of opportunity in practice both with my patients and with my own loved ones to see how rubbing a cream rich in Arnica gives great relief from pain, swelling and bruising.
Whilst it is a very expensive herb and so must be used economically I have also followed the practice of recommending a few Arnica flowers (usually along with such herbs as Chamomile or Rosemary) to be placed into the bath for people who are suffering terribly from general aches and pains and I have seen that this has also given a great deal of fast relief.
Arnica is a powerful herb that must be treated with great respect, after all it can be a lethal poison if used to excess but, knowing this, I do occasionally use Arnica internally in small and very safe amounts when needed. Not having been taught to do this and in my own culture of herbal medicine Arnica being seen as forbidden to take internally I'm especially grateful for the guidance of Dr Rudolph Weiss in this area and this is why I have copied some of his notes in detail above.
In this way I have personally been able to see that Arnica really is a remarkably powerful heart remedy which has given some tremendous and much needed benefits to some very ill people indeed.
If you who are reading this are studying herbal medicine or you have your own reasons for why you need to know this potent herbal ally in more depth then I warmly encourage you to turn to the great laboratory of your own body and take some very small doses of the tea or tincture, just to the level that you can feel its 'action' i.e. the way the herb actually works within the body. So long as you do this with a quiet and open mind I think you will soon feel for your self how, within a very short time frame, it lowers your blood pressure and slows down your heart-beat (the feeling of deep visceral relaxation) opens up your blood vessels (the feeling of warmth) and causes a change in the state of the nerves (the quietening of the mind). I think that when the direct and quite immediate potency of a remedy is felt in such a way for yourself then fear gives way to understanding. Once it has been experienced directly then one does not need to be warned to treat it with great respect and care but you can also feel how it may be exactly what can be needed by someone who is in the acute crisis of an inadequate circulation of blood to their heart.
In such instances a careful dose of Arnica may combine perfectly with generous quantities of Hawthorn for a weakened and struggling heart or perhaps with Valerian for someone who has become agitated and afraid.
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Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Arnica is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with plant B. There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person may do less for another -- why is this?
The reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are more hot or cool and at the same time more dry or damp; more info about this here.
There is an old wisdom in treating the person first and the condition second and in this light Arnica shows itself as a particularly helpful medicine when a nourishing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing' - something that is discussed here and shown in a chart here.
| Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was one of Europe's greatest scientists and influential thinkers. He credited Arnica with enabling him to carry on after no other treatment for his severe angina symptoms from his heart had helped Convinced he would have died without it he wrote
"When life and death began their struggle within me, I sensed how the hosts of life, this flower on their standard, forced the issue, and the stagnating forces of the enemy, the deathly oppressive powers, meet their Austerlitz.
Rejuvenated in my recovery I praise this herb most highly, yet in truth it is nature who praises herself, she who is truly inexhaustible, who creates this flower with its healing powers, and in doing so once more proclaims herself to be eternally procreative.”
Please understand that I cannot personally advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in my clinic but ideas
on how you might find a good herbalist in your area are here.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!
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