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What is Arnica Salve?

By J.S. Metzker Erdemir
Updated May 17, 2024
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Arnica salve is a skin-healing product made with the flower and sometimes the rhizome of the arnica montana plant. In Europe and Central Asia, arnica has been used since the 16th century to soothe minor skin afflictions and muscle aches. Native Americans also used the flower for medicinal purposes.

Arnica montana is a flower that is native to the mountains of sub-Arctic regions, including Northern Europe, Central Asia, Canada, and the northern U.S. The flower is bright, deep yellow and shaped similarly to a daisy, with fuzzy stems and sparse foliage. Other common names are wolfsbane, mountain tobacco, leopard's bane, and mountain daisy. Flowers for medicinal preparations are harvested in late spring shortly after blooming, and rhizomes can be collected in late fall when the plants have died back.

Arnica may be used as a tincture or a salve. Arnica tincture is made by steeping the flowers in ethanol for several weeks, then straining out the plant material. Diluted tinctures might be used directly on the skin or in poultices or compresses. The salve is made by mixing the tincture into a carrier oil or a thicker preparation made with beeswax thinned with oil or another product like petroleum jelly or lotion.

When used on minor skin afflictions such as small wounds or bruises, arnica salve can reduce swelling and speed healing. Its healing properties believed to be due to constituents of the flower such as helenalin, an anti-inflammatory that helps prevent edema. In vitro studies have shown the flower also has some anti-microbial activity.

Arnica salve is also effective at reducing muscle pain and aches from trauma, over-exertion, and sprains. Topical preparations reduce swelling and possibly increase the circulation around the area, which soothes the pain and swelling. Some marathon runners apply arnica salve before a race to prevent pain and reduce stiffness while running. Arnica is also available in homeopathic remedies that are taken internally to treat or prevent muscle aches as well as migraine headaches.

Unless the arnica is in a highly diluted homeopathic preparation, it should never be taken internally. The plant is toxic in high doses. Lower doses can cause dizziness, nausea, heart palpitations, or tremors. Arnica salve should also not be used on broken, weeping skin or skin ulcers because of the possibility of entering the bloodstream. Some people have skin reactions to arnica, including rashes, eczema, and itching. External side effects like these are more likely with frequent, long-term use.

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Discussion Comments
By Kat919 — On Aug 26, 2011

My mother used to give me the little homeopathic sugar pills for sore muscles. But now that I am an adult, I tend to think that homeopathy is, well, bunkum. There is not scientific evidence to support it and it defies common sense to think that something becomes more powerful as it is highly diluted.

But I had no idea that there was a non-homeopathic version of the salve. I do get sore muscles from working out and I'm not totally happy with the other options (like Tiger Balm or Icy Hot). I may give the arnica skin salve a try.

By orangey03 — On Aug 26, 2011

I am incredibly accident prone, so I pretty much stay covered in bruises. I had heard that arnica salve could speed the healing time for bruised areas, so I tried it out.

Normally, it takes about two weeks for my deep purple or black bruises to fade. I put some arnica salve on my darkest bruises, and they faded in less than a week. They quickly went through the usual progressive bruise rainbow from black to purple, blue, green, and then yellow.

I was elated that I discovered this salve in time for swimsuit season. It was so nice to walk out onto the beach without dark blotches covering my legs and arms.

By shell4life — On Aug 25, 2011

Arnica salve helped soothe my sore muscles after a day spent entertaining children. I got caught up in the fun and forgot that I’m not as young and resilient as I once was.

The kids were playing volleyball in the lake, and they needed one more team member. They talked me into joining them. I had great fun jumping up out of the water, spiking the beachball, and lunging for it when it wasn’t within my reach.

I paid for it the next day. I woke up so stiff and sore that I had trouble getting out of bed. It hurt like arthritis pain.

I rubbed arnica salve all over my sore muscles, and before long, I could walk normally again. It didn’t take all the soreness away, but it eased it enough to allow me to function.

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