The Alternative Medicine Cabinet: Arnica for Pain Relief
More than a third of American adults use some form of complementary or alternative medicine, according to a recent government report. Natural remedies have an obvious appeal, but how do you know which ones to choose and whether the claims are backed by science? Today, New York Times “Really?” columnist Anahad O’Connor begins a weekly series exploring the claims and the science behind alternative remedies that you may want to consider for your family medicine cabinet.
The Remedy: Arnica
The Claim: It relieves pain.
The Science: Arnica Montana, a plant native to mountainous areas of Europe and North America, has been used for centuries to treat a variety of pain. Athletes rub it on muscles to soothe soreness and strains, and arthritis sufferers rub it on joints to reduce pain and swelling. It’s believed that the plant contains derivatives of thymol, which seems to have anti-inflammatory effects.
Either way, scientists have found good evidence that it works. One randomized study published in 2007 looked at 204 people with osteoarthritis in their hands and found that an arnica gel preparation worked just as well as daily ibuprofen, and with minimal side effects. Another study of 79 people with arthritis of the knee found that when patients used arnica gel twice daily for three to six weeks, they experienced significant reductions in pain and stiffness and had improved function. Only one person experienced an allergic reaction.
The Risks: Arnica gels or creams can cause allergic reactions in some people, but it is generally safe when used topically. However, it should never be rubbed on broken or damaged skin, and it should only be ingested when in a heavily diluted, homeopathic form.