If you’re looking for a massage cream to use in muscle and joint therapy, you will probably find a common ingredient among the variety of products: arnica, a plant native to Europe and North America. Used for medicinal purposes throughout history, modern science has been exploring the efficacy of creams with this ingredient.
As is often the case, the research is inconclusive. Many studies regarding the effectiveness of arnica cream suffer from poor design or small populations. Additionally, the plant is used for more than just joint and muscle pain—it has been used to heal bruising, as well; so not all studies are focused on the same factors.
Still, the longest standing and most common use of arnica has been anti-inflammatory, which is why it is so frequently found in products designed to ease muscle and joint pain.
Here, we will look at three studies pertinent to a discussion of arnica used within a massage therapy practice to reduce pain and inflammation.
Study #1: Arnica as relief for pain following calf raises
The most general of the three studies, “The Effect of Topical Arnica on Muscle Pain,” found that “Pain scores on legs treated with arnica were higher than scores on those receiving placebo 24 hours after exercise.”1
Fifty-three subjects participated in the randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Researchers first measured the active range of motion in both ankles of each participant, then the subjects did a series of calf raises according to a protocol. Following the exercise, subjects were given two tubes of cream, labeled “left” and “right,” one containing active arnica and the other a placebo. Participants were told to apply the cream immediately after exercise, then again 24 and 48 hours later.1
The researchers measured range of motion and muscle tenderness at 24, 48 and 72 hours post-exercise. Pain scores were higher for those treated with arnica 24 hours after exercise, but there was no significant difference at 48 or 72 hours later.1
The conclusion: “Rather than decreasing leg pain, arnica was found to increase leg pain 24 hours after eccentric calf exercises.”1
Taken alone, this study indicates that arnica is not only ineffective, but could actually increase patients’ pain. However, the other two studies showed different results.
Study #2: Arnica as relief for KOA
This study, completed in 2002, focused on the use of arnica by 26 men and 53 women with osteoarthritis of the knee (KOA). After three and six weeks, significant decreases in pain and stiffness were reported by the majority of subjects. In fact, the researchers noted, “Sixty-nine patients (87 percent) rated the tolerability of the gel as ‘good’ or ‘fairly good,’ and 76 percent would use it again.”2
The conclusion: “Topical application of arnica montana gel for six weeks was a safe, well-tolerated and effective treatment of mild to moderate OA of the knee.”2
Study #3: Arnica as relief for osteoarthritis of the hand
Conducted in 2007, this study examined whether NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), specifically ibuprofen or arnica both in the form of topical treatments, would work better for pain relief for patients with osteoarthritis of the hand.
Each of the 204 participants were treated for 21 days with one or the other in this randomized, double-blind study. No differences in pain or hand function were found between the two treatments.3
The conclusion: “This preparation of arnica is not inferior to ibuprofen when treating osteoarthritis of hands.”3
While it would be nice if the science clearly pointed toward the benefits of using arnica cream, the results are unclear and more research is needed. The fact remains, however, that arnica continues to be successfully used for muscle and joint pain relief by many herbalists, homeopaths and LMTs.
1Adkison JD, Bauer DW, Chang T. “The effect of topical arnica on muscle pain.” Ann Pharmacother. 2010:44(10);1579-1584.
2Knuesel O, Suter A, Weber M. “Arnica montana gel in osteoarthritis of the knee: an open, multicenter clinical trial.” Adv Ther. 2002:19(5);209-218.
3Melzer J, Saller R, Suter A, Widrig R. “Choosing between NSAID and arnica for topical treatment of hand osteoarthritis in a randomised, double-blind study.” Rheumatol Int. 2007:27(6);585-591.