Arnica as Good as Ibuprofen Gel for Arthritis Pain

Healthnotes Newswire (April 12, 2007)—Arnica (Arnica montana), also known as leopard’s bane, has been used as a topical medicine since at least the sixteenth century. Now modern clinical research shows it to be equal to topical ibuprofen in treating osteoarthritis of the hands.

“Although a multitude of topical gel preparations for osteoarthritis of the hands are used by patients and prescribed by doctors, we set out to evaluate whether there was a noticeable difference between a commonly used synthetic NSAID [nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug] and a modern preparation of a traditional medical plant,” said Jörg Melzer, MD, of the Institute of Complementary Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. “We chose this specific arnica preparation because of its demonstrated anti-inflammatory action, its ability to penetrate the skin, and its availability as a gel similar to ibuprofen gel.”

The hands are commonly affected by osteoarthritis. Gradual destruction of the joint cartilage produces nodule-like swellings on both sides of the joints (called Heberden and Bouchard nodes). The current standard of treatment is aimed only at relieving symptoms because no therapy is known to reverse or halt the natural progression of osteoarthritis. Painkillers and NSAIDs such as ibuprofen and diclofenac are commonly prescribed drug treatments.

Dr. Melzer and colleagues enrolled 204 participants from 20 clinics (12 general practices, 6 rheumatology clinics, 2 general medicine clinics). After screening, subjects were randomly assigned to receive either ibuprofen gel (Optifen Gel) or arnica gel (A. Vogel Arnica Gel). Both treatments were used in identical dispensing amounts of gel (4 cm strip), gently rubbed over the affected joints three times a day for three weeks. Participants were asked not to wash their hands for one hour after application.

Pain intensity and hand function improved in both treatment groups. The ibuprofen group had a 23.9% reduction in pain; the arnica group had a 26.6% reduction. Overall hand function (such as grip strength, ability to use tools, and tie a knot) improved similarly in the two groups. Both treatments were well tolerated, with 6.1% of the ibuprofen group and 4.8% of the arnica group reporting a treatment-related adverse event.

Arnica-containing ointments and arnica tabets are commonly used for sprains, strains, and sports injuries. One preliminary study found that arnica gel applied twice daily reduced symptoms of osteoarthritis of the knee. Another double-blind study found that a combination of topical arnica ointment and oral homeopathic arnica tablets reduced pain in people recovering from hand surgery. This is the first study to compare arnica and ibuprofen for osteoarthritis pain.

“The improvements seen in our study were clinically relevant,” Dr. Melzer said. “This topical application of arnica gel can be regarded as a viable alternative to ibuprofen gel when treating osteoarthritis of the hand joints.”

(Rheumatol Int 2007;27:585–91)

Jeremy Appleton, ND, CNS, is a licensed naturopathic physician, certified nutrition specialist, and published author. Dr. Appleton was the Nutrition Department Chair at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine, has served on the faculty at Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences, and is a former Healthnotes Senior Science Editor and a founding contributor to Healthnotes Newswire. He has worked extensively in scientific and regulatory affairs in the supplement industry and is now a consultant through his company Praxis Natural Products Consulting and Wellness Services.

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