Whether it’s bumps, bruises, sprains, strains, or just general aches and pains, everyone hurts sometime.
We’ve long been told that ice and anti-inflammatories are the answer to our injuries but there is an increasing amount of evidence showing that these common interventions actually inhibit your body’s ability to heal. The result is a longer healing time and an increased likelihood of chronic problems.
Isn’t all inflammation bad?
In order to understand the problems with ice and anti-inflammatory medicines let’s take a look at what exactly is happening when you sprain your ankle.
An ankle sprain occurs when ligaments and tendons in the ankle are overstretched, causing a partial or complete tear of the ligament. (Every day over 25,000 people sprain their ankle in the US!)
Acute inflammation occurs in the first 72 hours of the injury. We often hear about the evils of chronic or systemic inflammation and for good reasons; but acute inflammation following an injury is actually beneficial. Blood rushes to the area, carrying important immune system cells and hormones (such as IGF-1) that will help prevent infection and start the healing process. Furthermore, as fluids rush to the area, swelling occurs which helps to protect the injured area.
Icing during this stage slows the flow of essential healing nutrients to the injury. You may initially have less swelling and less pain but the result is prolonged healing and even an increased likelihood of long-term problems.
What about R.I.C.E.? (rest, ice, compression, elevate)
Gabe Mirkin, the man who first proposed the R.I.C.E. protocol in the 1970’s recently wrote an article questioning the benefits of ice and complete rest.
“The response to both infection and tissue damage is the same. Inflammatory cells rush to injured tissue to start the healing process. The inflammatory cells called macrophages release a hormone called Insulin-like growth Factor (IGF-1) into the damaged tissues, which helps muscles and other injured parts to heal. However, applying ice to reduce swelling actually delays healing by preventing the body from releasing IGF-1.” (The italics are my own emphasis.)
So, in the case of an acute injury, inflammation is a good thing.
Not only does ice slow your body’s ability to heal but taking anti-inflammatory medications like NSAIDs can do the same!
What’s worse is that, not only are NSAIDs like ibuprofen problematic because they prolong the healing of an injury, they can also wreak havoc on your gut, causing both severe and chronic digestive problems. People often think of these over-the-counter medications as being safe but in reality they are responsible for thousands of deaths each year.
Luckily, as herbalists, we aren’t limited to ice and NSAIDs.
Plants can be used to support the beneficial immune system response following an injury, thus decreasing pain and speeding up healing. And they can do this without causing gut issues or death.
I think that’s what we call a win, win, win.
Before we get to this recipe let’s look at the ingredients to better understand their benefits and abilities.
Arnica (Arnica spp.)
Many people reach for arnica cream for their bruises, sprains, and strains. Health food stores often stock numerous arnica preparations, anything from arnica ointment to homeopathic remedies.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used arnica on bruises, yet I am still amazed at its ability to seemingly wipe away bruises magically and reduce pain.
Arnica works by dilating capillaries, which increases blood flow to and from the injury. This increased blood flow brings healing hormones to the area and moves stagnant blood (like bruises). The result is decreased swelling and faster healing time.
It’s best to use arnica on closed wound injuries. It’s not the end of the world to use them on open wounds but this can sometimes irritate the area. Full strength arnica preparations shouldn’t be used internally unless under the guidance of an experienced practitioner.
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
St. John’s Wort is famous for being an “anti-depressive herb”. But the benefits for St. John’s Wort go well beyond this single use. One of my favorite ways to use it is for injuries and pain, especially nerve pain.
Herbalists also commonly use St. John’s Wort for bruises, sprains and neuropathy. One study has shown that St. John’s Wort can reduce scarring and relieve pain and itching related to wound healing.
Helichrysum is commonly used as an essential oil for healing bumps, bruises and strains. Aromatherapists at Stillpoint Aromatics recommend it for reducing swelling and bruising, healing scar tissue, and for skin irritation.
Suzanne Catty, author of Hydrosols, the Next Aromatherapy, states: “Applied in a compress to bangs and bumps, it can even bring subcutaneous bruises to the surface, exposing hidden damage.”
Lavender Essential Oil (Lavandula angustifolia)
Lavender essential oil excels as a first-aid herb. It can relieve pain, increase healing, and even help to soothe and calm the patient.
This is a non-greasy pain ointment that is wonderful for bruises, sprains and strains, and aches and pains. It works best on closed-wound injuries and can be applied multiple times per day. If you don’t already have arnica and St. John’s Wort infused oils you can find a blend of these at Mountain Rose Herbs. This blend also includes lavender essential oil.
I’ve seen this arnica cream recipe work like magic to erase intense bruises and to alleviate pain caused by injury. This recipe is based on Rosemary Gladstar’s Perfect Cream recipe.
What you’ll need…
Hard oils and beeswax
- 20 grams beeswax
- 25 grams coconut oil
- 20 grams shea butter
- 3/4 cup arnica and St. John’s wort infused oil
- 2/3 cup helichrysum hydrosol
- 20-40 drops of lavender essential oil (optional)
Begin by melting the shea butter, coconut oil and beeswax on low or in a double boiler.
Once everything is completely melted, stir in the infused oil. (I like to use a craft popsicle stick for stirring. I use a fresh stick with each batch of cream.)
As you pour in the oil you’ll see the beeswax solidify. Turn off the heat and stir until everything is completely mixed together. If necessary gently apply more heat until the beeswax is completely melted again.
Pour this melted mixture into a blender or food processor. Let it sit until it has cooled and has just barely turned to a more solid state. Don’t let it get too hard or it will be difficult to mix into a cream.
Turn the blender or food processor on. Slowly trickle in the “waters,” including the helichrysum hydrosol and the optional essential oil.
As you trickle in the waters the mixture will slowly turn from a translucent to a solid cream. You may need to scrape down the edges and the bottom of the mixer to mix in any leftover wax and then re-mix.
This recipe makes about 11 ounces of arnica cream. It is best stored in a glass container in a cool location. You can also add rosemary antioxidant extract to increase the shelf life of your arnica ointment. (You can find rosemary antioxidant extract at Mountain Rose Herbs.)
Arnica is a low-dose botanical and should only be used internally with extreme caution. Be sure to wash all the items that came in contact with the cream very thoroughly. I like to use a paper towel to wipe off the extra cream then wash everything with lots of soap and hot water.
Resources & Citations
- Ankle Injuries: Causes and Treatments
- Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy by Suzanne Catty (book)
- Soft Tissue Pathophysiology
- The effect of Hypericum perforatum on the wound healing and scar of cesarean.
- The effectiveness of essential oils for patients with neck pain: a randomized controlled study. J Altern Complement Med. 2014 Oct;20(10):771-9.
doi: 10.1089/acm.2013.0453. Epub 2014 Sep 5.
- Effects of aroma hand massage on pain, state anxiety and depression in hospice patients with terminal cancer. Taehan Kanho Hakhoe Chi. 2008