The Truth About Using Arnica Gel for Bruises and Sore Muscles
Arnica gel has been widely touted in the holistic health world for its healing properties, but can it actually reduce soreness and shrink bruises?
If you've ever walked up and down the pain-relief section of any drugstore, you've likely seen tubes of arnica gel alongside wound dressings and ACE bandages. But unlike the other straight-up medical products, arnica has not been approved by the FDA. In fact, a quick scan of the FDA site tells you that they classify arnica as an "unapproved homeopathic OTC human drug." (For the record, the FDA doesn't approve dietary supplements or CBD products either.) Still, a lot of people swear by arnica for relief from muscle and joint pain and bruising (including a few fitness trainers). Here's what you need to know about the highly contested remedy.
What Is Arnica?
Usually found in gel or cream form (though there are supplements as well), arnica montana has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries, according to Suzanne Fuchs, D.P.M., a podiatrist and ankle surgeon in Palm Beach, Florida. Also known as the mountain daisy, "arnica is a favorite herb amongst homeopathic doctors for the treatment of swelling caused by sports injuries," says Lynn Anderson, Ph.D., a master herbalist.
What Are the Potential Benefits of Arnica?
The reason arnica works is because, like many plants, it has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, says Anderson. When arnica cream or arnica gel is applied, it stimulates circulation, helping the body's own healing system react—which encourages some speedy relief. TL;DR: It assists the body in reducing swelling and relieving pain.
Fuchs has her patients use arnica gel or cream after surgery, as well as and for areas of inflammation in their feet and ankles. They also use it on ligaments and tendons for things such as plantar fasciitis, foot, and ankle sprains and Achilles tendonitis. "Arnica helps heal and decrease inflammation, relieves pain and soreness, and helps decrease bruising," she says. (BTW, this is why you're bruising so easily.)
Likewise, Timur Lokshin, D.A.C.M., a licensed acupuncturist in New York, recommends arnica for acute inflammation. He believes you need to follow a specific application method (known in the massage world as centripetal effleurage, which is a stroking motion toward the center of the injury/source of pain) for it to actually be effective.
Because arnica is a generic substance, "there isn't a drug company with an interest in it enough to finance a prospective double-blind, placebo-controlled study—the industry standard—in evaluating its efficacy," says Jen Wolfe, a board-certified geriatric pharmacist. But, there is some research to show that it does work. Take, for example, a 2016 study published in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, which found that topical application of arnica following rhinoplasties (read: nose jobs) was effective in reducing both swelling and bruising. However, this type of study only demonstrates a correlation, not causation. A similar Annals of Plastic Surgery study found that ingesting arnica tablets (a less common form of arnica) sped up rhinoplasty recovery time compared to the recovery time of patients taking placebo pills. However, there were just 24 subjects—hardly representative of the entire population.
Early research also shows that arnica gel could be beneficial for those with osteoarthritis in their hands or knees: One study found that using arnica gel twice daily for 3 weeks reduced pain and stiffness and improved function, and other research shows that using the same gel works as well as ibuprofen in reducing pain and improving function in the hands, according to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database.
Is Arnica Actually Effective?
While some experts recommend it, others say it's total BS. For example, Brett Kotlus, M.D., F.A.C.S., an oculofacial plastic surgeon in New York City, says that arnica is not effective, really, for anything. "I performed a clinical study using the most popular homeopathic arnica before and after upper eyelid surgery (blepharoplasty) using a double-blind placebo-controlled design, and there was no benefit in comfort or bruising," says Kotlus.
While naturopathic doctors and chiropractors are very strong advocates of homeopathy, they only cite anecdotal evidence because there are no good studies showing arnica works, adds Kotlus. Similarly, Stuart Spitalnic, M.D., an emergency physician in Rhode Island, chalks up any benefit to the placebo effect, and he doesn't recommend arnica or use it with any of his patients. (Related: Is Meditation Better for Pain Relief Than Morphine?)
Should You Use Arnica?
Perhaps Wolfe sums it up best: "Pain is such a subjective measure. On a pain scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the worst pain someone has ever experienced), one person's 4 might be another person's 8." In other words, while there may be limited evidence that it does work, the benefits are subjective.
There's no harm in applying an arnica gel topically (hey, even a placebo effect can be a good thing), but you should probably avoid popping supplements since it's not FDA approved.