views updated May 29 2018



Arnica (Arnica montana L. ), known also as leopards-bane, wolfsbane, and European arnica, is a member of the Compositae (Asteraceae) family. This attractive herb is native to the mountains of Siberia and central Europe, where the leaves were smoked as a substitute for tobacco. This practice led to a common name for the herb: mountain tobacco. There are several North American species of arnica, including A. fulgens, A. sororia, and A. cordifolia. Arnica thrives in the northern mountains of the United States and Canada, in high pastures and woodlands.

Arnica grows from a cylindrical, hairy rhizome with a creeping underground stem. First year leaves are downy and grow in a flat rosette at the base of the stem. In the second year, arnica sends up a round, hairy stem with smaller, sessile leaves growing in one to three opposite pairs. This central stem may branch into three or more stems each with a terminal composite blossom. Arnica's aromatic, daisy-like flowers have 1014 bright yellow rays, each with three notches at the end. Flower rays are irregularly bent back. The central disk is composed of tubular florets. Arnica blooms from June to August. The flowerheads, when crushed and sniffed, may cause sneezing , resulting in another of arnica's common names: sneezewort.


Arnica has a history of folk medicine use in many locations, including North America, Germany, and Russian. The herb has been used in folk remedies since the sixteenth century. A North American indigenous tribe, the Cataulsa, prepared a tea from arnica roots to ease back pains. The German writer Goethe credited arnica with saving his life by bringing down a persistent high fever . Arnica preparations are used extensively in Russia. Folk use there includes external treatment of wounds , black eye, sprains, and contusions. Arnica has been used in Russian folk medicine to treat uterine hemorrhage, myocarditis, arteriosclerosis, angina pectoris, cardiac insufficiency, and in numerous other unproven applications.

General use

Arnica flowers, fresh or dried, are used medicinally. Many herbalists consider arnica to be a specific remedy for bruises , sprains, and sore muscles. The herb is known by some as "tumbler's cure all," reflecting this common medicinal use. A compress soaked in an arnica infusion may relieve the inflammation of phlebitis . A few drops of arnica tincture added to warm water in a foot bath will relieve fatigue and soothe sore feet. A hair rinse prepared with arnica extract has been used to treat alopecia neurotica, an anxiety condition leading to hair loss . The very dilute homeopathic preparation ingested following a shock or muscle/soft tissue trauma is said to be beneficial. The homeopathic preparation is also used to relieve vertigo, hoarseness, and seasickness. Studies have determined that arnica has properties that act as an immunostimulant. The extract of arnica has been shown to stimulate the action of white blood cells in animal studies, increasing resistance to bacterial infections , such as salmonella.

German studies have isolated sesquiterpenoid lactones, including helenalin and dihydrohelenalin, in arnica. These compounds were found to possess the pharmacologic properties responsible for arnica's anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. Arnica contains sesquiterpene lactones, flavonoid glycosides, alkaloid, volatile oil, tannin, and isomeric alcohol, including arnidio and foradiol.

Arnica is approved for external use as an anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and antiseptic by the German Commission E, an advisory panel on herbal medicines. There are over one hundred medicinal preparations using arnica extracts commercially available in Germany. In the United States, arnica is widely used in topical application for bruises, aches, sprains, and inflammations. Arnica was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia from the early 1800s until 1960.


Arnica is available commercially in the form of liniments and massage oil for external application, and in very dilute homeopathic preparations considered safe for internal use.

Harvest fully open arnica blossoms throughout the flowering season. Pick the flower heads on a sunny day after the morning dew has evaporated. Spread the blossoms on a paper-lined tray to dry in a bright and airy room away from direct sun. Temperature in the drying room should be at least 70°F (21.1°C). When the blossoms are completely dry, store in a dark glass container with an airtight lid. The dried herb will maintain medicinal potency for 1218 months. Clearly label the container with the name of the herb and the date and place harvested.

Tincture: Combine four ounces of fresh or dried arnica flowers with one pint of brandy, gin, or vodka in a glass container. The alcohol should be enough to cover the flowers. The ratio should be close to 50/50 alcohol to water. Stir and cover. Place the mixture in a dark cupboard for three to five weeks. Shake the mixture several times each day. Strain and store in a tightly capped, clearly labeled, dark glass bottle. Tinctures, properly prepared and stored, will retain medicinal potency for two years or more. Arnica tincture should not be ingested without supervision of a qualified herbalist or physician.

Ointment: Simmer one ounce of dried and powdered arnica flowers with one ounce of olive oil for several hours on very low heat. Combine this medicinal oil with melted beeswax to desired consistency. Pour into dark glass jars while still warm. Seal with tightly fitting lids when cool and label appropriately.

Infusion: Place two to three teaspoons of chopped, fresh arnica blossoms in a warmed glass container. Bring two cups of fresh, nonchlorinated water to the boiling point, add it to the herbs. Cover. Simmer for about 10 minutes. Strain. The prepared tea will store for about two days in the refrigerator. The infusion may be used to bathe unbroken skin surfaces and to provide relief for rheumatic pain , chillbains, bruises, and sprains. Because of the toxicity of arnica, it is best to avoid internal use without qualified medical supervision.


Arnica is deadly in large quantities. Do not ingest the herb or the essential oil. Do not use the undiluted essential oil externally. The extremely dilute homeopathic preparation of arnica is considered safe for internal use in proper therapeutic dosages. Overdose of arnica extract has resulted in poisoning, with toxic symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhea , and hemorrhage, even death. Use externally with caution, and only in dilute preparations. Only the homeopathic tincture can be safely ingested. Discontinue if a skin rash results, and do not use on broken skin. Research has confirmed that alcoholic extracts of arnica have a toxic action on the heart, and can cause an increase in blood pressure.

Side effects

Arnica contains a compound known as helenalin, an allergen that may cause contact dermatitis in some persons. If a rash develops discontinue use of the herbal preparation. Prolonged external use of arnica extract in high concentrations can result in blistering, skin ulcers, and surface necroses.


None reported.



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Clare Hanrahan


views updated May 29 2018

ar·ni·ca / ˈärnikə/ • n. a plant (genus Arnica) of the daisy family that bears yellow daisylike flowers. ∎  a preparation of this plant (chiefly A. montana of central Europe) used medicinally, esp. to treat bruises.