Does Arnica really help bruises heal faster?

Since I do martial arts and my girlfriend Lelak does CrossFit, we both manage to get a large number of bruises between the two of us.  Therefore a very common question heard in our household is “have you put arnica on that?”.  Coming home from training last night sporting some lovely new bruises made me wonder if arnica really does make bruises heal faster than doing nothing at all and if any scientific studies have been done on the effectiveness of arnica.

Arnica is a genus with about 30 perennial, herbaceous species, belonging to the sunflower family, Asteraceae. Within this genus, several species, such as Arnica montana and Arnica chamissonis, contain helenalin, which is a a major ingredient in anti-inflammatory preparations, mostly used to treat bruises.

A bruise is caused by the capillaries bursting open and blood spilling into the surrounding tissue.  As your body attempts to heal itself, it sends white blood cells to the area to clean up the spilt blood.  Arnica is said to increase the number of white cells sent to the area causing the blood to be cleaned up faster and your bruise to fade quicker.  But does this actually occur?

Scouring PubMed for studies into the effectiveness of arnica, I could find only one that related to arnica’s effectiveness in treating bruising. This was a study from August 2002 in Dermatologic Surgery titled Effects of topical arnica gel on post-laser treatment bruises by Alonso, Lazarus & Baumann. In this study the authors had 19 patients in a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled study where half the patients applied a cream containing arnica to one side of their face and another cream containing no active ingredient to the other side for two weeks before laser treatment.  The other half of the group did the same thing but for two weeks after laser treatment.  The results- no difference whatsoever in the prevention or healing of the bruising on the side of the face treated with the arnica compared to the side of the face without it.

However, just one study with a small number of patients doesn’t prove conclusively that arnica isn’t effective, so I went looking for more evidence, this time on Medline Plus.  In their article on the first aid treatment for bruises from the Mayo Clinic, it doesn’t mention using Arnica at all.  Instead, they recommend that you apply ice to the area several times a day for the first 2 days and use Tylenol or Ibuprofen for pain relief.  The only sites I could find promoting the use of Arnica were natural therapy sites which contained no references to any studies done proving that Arnica is effective in healing bruises faster than if you did nothing at all.

Based on my research, I am not convinced that Arnica decreases the healing time of bruises.  In my opinion what probably does decrease the healing time is actually rubbing the bruised area.  This would increase blood flow to the area thus bringing more white cells to the area to assist in cleaning up the blood and reducing how long it takes for the bruise to fade.  Arnica has nothing to do with it at all.

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12 responses to “Does Arnica really help bruises heal faster?

  1. “Instead, they recommend that you apply ice to the area several times a day for the first 2 days and use Tylenol or Ibuprofen for pain relief. ”

    I’ve seen it suggested that the inflammatory response is actually part of the healing process, and taking anti-inflammatories is a bad idea.

  2. I think (hope) that through evidence-based medicine, we will begin to see a reduction in the use of NSAIDs for pain relief in cases where they are actually detrimental to healing, as in a ligament strain for example. I shudder to think of how I religiously took NSAIDs after having my wisdom teeth out, the whole time probably slowing my healing process.
    I would doubt that a topical agent could actually do much to call in white blood cells to an area to promote eating up all the spilled out red blood cells that are causing the bruise.
    Wear your bruises with pride!!!!

    • I currently have a massive bruise on my arm that I am wearing with pride. :)

      I think the tide is turning against prescribing NSAIDs for every single ache and pain. Slowly, but I think it is there.

  3. I love that you research this stuff. So many people just believe blindly in something without taking the time to find out more.

  4. … but it smells like it should be helping :)

  5. The most frustrating thing I find is that there just isn’t the same amount of money in homeopathy as there are in chemical based drugs and so there isn’t the money for research. :( I’ve never tried Arnica but I have some other Homeopathic remedies that work unbelievably well (and I was totally sceptical so it’s not a placebo thing).

    • Actually, whilst there isn’t as much money in Complementary/Alternative Medicine (CAM) field as there is traditional medicine, there is still a fair bit. The CAM industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, so they really have no excuse not to invest some of that money into more research to prove that their claims actually are true.

      With the respect to the placebo effect not working if you are skeptical about something, unfortunately, it is not that black & white. Scientists still really don’t understand how the placebo effect works, but its effects are fairly impressive. Just by doing something, even if you aren’t sure it will work, is enough for the placebo effect to kick in. What homeopathy and most other CAM treatments need to do is to prove that their treatments work beyond the placebo effect and unfortunately, they have not yet done that.

  6. I use arnica cream on my back when I pull something and it seems to help.

    I’m a bit inclined to think though that just as different types of manufactured medications will help one person more than another because of body chemistry differences etc that homeopathic remedies will differ in their effectiveness from person to person too.

    • If the theories that homeopathy were based on weren’t physically impossible, then I would think that you might be on something there that warranted more research.
      However, in the over 200 years that homeopathy has been around, not a single study has proven that you can “treat like with like” and also it is chemically impossible that a medicine will still work if you dilute it pass the point at which none of the active ingredient is still even in the solution.

  7. I’ve taken arnica (you can get it in tablet form) when I’ve had bruises that just would not go away. Whether it helped, I don’t know.

  8. There’s an argument that ‘natural’ therapies should be allowed where there is no known scientific treatment. After all, the placebo effect does work. It has been proven scientifically. ;)

    • On the surface that sounds like a rather valid argument until you consider that people will treat themselves with “natural” therapies, even for serious life-threatening conditions. This leads to people delaying going to see conventional doctors and getting treatments that will save their lives and in the case of that poor kid whose parents were homeopaths, her parents belief in natural treatments caused her to die of eczema, a very treatable skin condition. Therefore, I don’t believe that natural therapies should be allowed when it is proven that they don’t work.