Arnica oil is a well known herbal remedy for bruises, sprains and muscles strains. It’s surprisingly effective, as well as easy to make at home. An arnica infused oil also quickly converts to a convenient and easy to apply arnica salve.
When we found our off-grid homestead, I was working in an office job just like most people. A career as a project manager wasn’t exactly compatible with a life in the rural wilderness, and I’d been reskilling in a rather unconventional way. I was going to night school training to be a massage therapist, specializing in sports medicine.
Vermont is a rural state, but it’s also a place where just about everyone loves to get outside one way or another. Whether it’s skiing in the winter or just about everything else in the summer, someone’s always overdoing it and in need of a little TLC.
I’d learned in massage school that arnica oil is unparalleled as a treatment for sore muscles, sprains, strains, and bruises. I was regularly purchasing small bottles of arnica oil from Weleda, and while my clients love it, my DIY spirit had other ideas. Why not grow arnica in our herb garden and make my own arnica oil?
Growing Arnica for Homemade Arnica Oil
Arnica (Arnica Montana) is a small perennial herb in the sunflower family. It’s native to Europe but rare in the wild, largely due to overharvesting. It prefers nutrient-poor soil, which limits competition and allows this tenacious little herb to thrive. We had just put in a new garden bed, and it had heavy clay soil and almost no organic matter. Arnica loved it!
The first year we planted just three small plants from transplants, and even though I harvested most the flowers, the one of two I missed self-seeded. The following year I had more than 100 plants in just a tiny area, and I was able to harvest literally gallons of arnica blossoms for homemade arnica oil.
Harvesting Arnica for Oil
While the plants are easy to grow, harvesting and preserving the blossoms is a bit tricky. Arnica should never be taken internally, and the first time I harvested the blossoms barehanded I got a good lesson. The medicinal compounds in the blossoms taste horrible, and when I stopped mid-harvest to pick a few strawberries from a nearby bed I was sorry. I spent the next 5 minutes spitting, after just incidental contact between my arnica covered fingers and my tongue.
Arnica oil isn’t nearly that potent, and I’ve never had an issue with bad-tasting residue on my hands after doing massage work. It washes off quickly, with just a bit of soap and water.
The second problem with harvesting fresh arnica is that the blossoms are very short-lived. They love to self-seed, and once picked those little blossoms will turn into fluffy seed bombs in under 24 hours. If you’re going to store them, the blossoms need to be dried very quickly to prevent degradation and keep them from rapidly converting to seed pod fluffs (think dandelion seed heads).
Infusing Arnica Oil
Generally, I use dried herbs to make herbal infused oils. Since arnica doesn’t dry well at home, I had a lot of trouble making this work. I couldn’t get the blossoms to dry fast enough, and they almost always turned into fluffy little seed heads well before they’d dried thoroughly. (I now have an Excaliber dehydrator, and I’m hoping to try it with our next arnica crop for better drying.)
While you can just buy commercially dried arnica blossoms for making arnica oil, they’re around $40 per pound. Since arnica is so easy to grow, I was set on using our own homegrown blossoms. That means making a herbal infused oil with fresh blossoms, extracted within hours of harvest.
Fresh blossoms placed in oil need a bit of warmth to help drive off excess moisture, and about an hour in a double boiler on very low accomplishes this nicely. Ideally, the water should be around 170 degrees for 4 to 8 hours. The blossoms dry quickly within the oil, and the excess moisture evaporates out of the top of the open arnica oil jar. (Keep the lids off the jars so that water can evaporate.)
It’s important to make sure the water in the double boiler is low so that it won’t come too far up the sides of the jars and get into the oil. A crockpot set on “low” or “keep warm” usually works well, just check it periodically to ensure it’s not getting too hot. Place a towel at the bottom of the crockpot to keep the jars out of direct contact with the heat source, and then add water to the pot so that it goes about 1/3 of the way up the sides of the herb/oil-filled jars.
After about 4-8 hours infusing, turn off the heat and allow the arnica oil to infuse for another 24 to 48 hours before straining out the herb mixture.
Choosing a Carrier Oil
Since arnica oil is only used topically, you’ll want to select an oil that fits well with your skincare and health goals. I often use olive oil for the most versatility, since it’s not likely to trigger any allergies. Sweet almond oil is a better choice, as it’s more nourishing for skin, but if you’re using it on clients in a massage practice there’s always the potential for nut allergies.
An even better option is jojoba oil, which is especially nourishing to the skin and non-staining to clothing/sheets. The downside is it can be expensive. A little bit goes a long way though, and jojoba oil was the main oil I used in my day to day massage practice. A single 16-ounce bottle would last through about 50 full-body massages, so it’s worth the extra investment in my mind. (Especially since arnica oil is usually reserved for spot treatments rather than full-body massage work.)
Using Arnica Oil
So once you’ve made your own homemade arnica oil, how do you use it? Applying oils can be a bit tricky, and sometimes messy if you’re just working out of a jar. A simple pump bottle, ideally amber colored to block light, is the best way to store your arnica oil. That’ll allow you to squeeze out just a tiny pea-sized amount so you can apply the therapeutic oil without mess.
Generally, arnica oil is applied 2-4 times per day to the affected area to reduce bruising after an injury, or to treat muscle soreness after injury or exercise. As with any new herbal remedy, be sure to spot check on a small patch of skin to check for allergies.
When it’s just for my own use, I’ll often make a simple arnica salve by mixing 8 ounces of arnica oil with 1 ounce of beeswax pistils in a double boiler. I then pour the resulting arnica salve into small salve tins for easy storage. When packed fully with flowers, a pint mason jar will yield about 8 ounces of arnica oil after infusion. Once the beeswax is added, that in turn yields about 6 salve tins full of homemade arnica slave.
A salve is basically a beeswax thickened arnica cream that’s easy to apply. The only downside of an arnica salve is that it’s applied with the fingers, and double-dipping is a big “no-no” in a professional massage practice. I still make it for my own use at home though, since it’s much more convenient than simple arnica oil.
Benefits of Arnica Oil
So does arnica oil work? That one’s a bit trickier to pin down. Some studies show that it’s only about as effective as a placebo, while others have shown impressive results with reduced pain and inflammation.
One study found that topical arnica oil was just as effective as Ibuprofin as a treatment for hand osteoarthritis, but with a lower potential for side effects. Another study found similar results when patients applied arnica twice daily to treat knee osteoarthritis. Both of these studies were not controlled against placebo, which leaves open the possibility of a placebo effect at work.
A study by the British Association of Dermatologists found that arnica oil had a significant impact on bruise healing, and it worked markedly better than placebo. They used a laser to create multiple small standardized bruises on volunteers and then rated the healing after 2 weeks. Bruises treated with arnica oil healed 20% better according to their dermatologist’s rating system, and just about as fast as common traditional (non-herbal) medicine bruise treatments.
Another randomized placebo-controlled trial found that arnica oil significantly reduced muscle pain in runners if applied every few hours throughout the day for 72 hours after a standardized run.
In treating athletes in my practice, as well as treating myself after injuries, I’ve always had great success. Placebo or not, Arnica oil always has a place in my medicine cabinet.