Thursday, July 10, 2014

First Aid Value of Arnica and Hot Compresses

In the past few weeks before writing this post, I have been presented with a few golden "healing opportunities." The first one was a tooth abscess, the second was whiplash and bruised ribs. Most people would see this as misfortune, but I see them as opportunities to see the magic of folk medicine (which is the medicine you practice at home with the natural materials around you). To me, folk medicine includes plants, but it also includes basic remedies that don't involve plants, such as hydrotherapy. The two things I want to talk about today are Arnica (the plant), and hot compresses (a towel dipped in hot water or herb tea and applied externally).

Identifying and Using Arnica

Arnica is a mountain plant, and has several species with the same or similar actions. The official european species is Arnica montana, but hiking in mountain meadows of Washington and Oregon you'll find broadleaf arnica (Arnica latifolia), or heartleaf arnica (Arnica cordifolia) or several other species. If you choose to harvest from the wild, remember to choose an abundance patch, don't pull up the roots, and leave a significant amount of plants.

You harvest the plant in full bloom, using the newly flowering tops of arnica, preferably fresh. A basic tincture, or infused oil can be prepared. See the "Basic How-to's" section for instructions.

Used externally, arnica can reduce swelling and bruising. I would use it in the case of injuries such as sprains, muscle pulls, stiff or sore joints, and broken bones. It works by opening the blood vessels and increasing circulation so that damaged cell wastes can be taken away, and fresh materials can be delivered. This plant is low-dose plant, meaning that it is mildly toxic when taken internally. For myself, I find external applications just fine.

I find that arnica is most effective when applied frequently and consistently. For example, 3 times a day for two weeks for chronic injuries, or 5 times a day for three days in acute situations. However, even if you can only find time for once a day, or a few times a week, it's worth it. I like to use arnica in a compress (hot or cold). With continued contact with the skin, and water, the medicine is absorbed most efficiently, especially with heat.

Arnica montana growing in the wild

How to Make a Hot Compress (with or without arnica)
Using hot and cold water to help healing is an incredibly underrated technique. If applied properly, I think simple hot compresses could save us from spending a lot of money on drugs and visits to the doctor. I want to walk you through the process of making a compress, and talk about two specific applications that were successful for me.

A compress is much easier, and requires much less preparation and material than a poultice (which involves putting fresh plant material on the area). To make one, you will need a small washcloth, a large towel, a bowl, hot water, and arnica tincture or oil.

  1. Boil the water. Prepare the area where you will apply the compress. Clothing should be taken off or pulled back, jewelry around the area should be taken off. I like to put on compresses next to the sink, so that my bedroom doesn't get all wet.
  2. Put the washcloth in the bowl and cover with hot water. Now is the time to rub tincture or salve of arnica in a few layers over the area. Of course, different plants can be used for each situation). Let the cloth cool in the bowl for a few minutes, or until it is cool enough to hold with your hands. You may remove it with tongs if need be.
  3. Assuming it has cooled just enough not to burn your skin, apply the towel on the injured area (neck, knee, face, etc). Wrap or cover the area immediately in several layers of the large towel. This is to retain heat.
  4. With with it until it loses its heat, and then dip it back in the bowl (if it's still hot, if not, add more boiling water), and repeat the process 2-3 times.
  5. You will know it is working if the skin where you applied the compress is red. You will know it is the wrong treatment if the hot cloth causes you intense pain (the area may have been too inflamed for a hot treatment).

When to Use a Hot Compress
Hot compresses should be used when you want to increase blood flow to a particular area. This could be helpful with a number of specific things: chronic injuries, recent injuries (without excessive and intense swelling, or after swelling has gone down), infections where circulation is not optimal, and tight muscles.

Whiplash in particular is a perfect situation for a hot compress with arnica. The heat will keep the energy moving and healing itself, and help to relax the muscles. Especially in the first few days, invasive treatments are not a good idea. The neck is still in trauma, and it needs some time to recover before being prodded or stretched too intensely (though mild massage and stretching is perfect). This time is the time to.

I used hot compresses as a cornerstone of the treatment for my tooth abscess. Because your gums and teeth are somewhat isolated from regular circulation, they need extra help to heal. I had a lot of fluid trapped in my gums, and also my cheek. I used arnica compresses on my face about 5 times a day for three days. This is more frequent than most people can realistically do in their busy lives, which is why I don't recommend treating this kind of thing at home for most people. 

Hot compresses should not be used when there is a lot of hot swelling and pain. For example, in the case of a painful toothache, or within a week of surgery. There are situations in which the inflammatory response is too triggered, and bringing more blood to the area won't be beneficial at that time. Carefully consider this before using a hot compress.

However, in the case of joint surgeries, it would be an ideal treatment to start when the initial inflammation goes down and you're ready to start your long term healing plan. Regular (1-2 times a day for 2 weeks) compresses with arnica or comfrey tincture could speed healing immensely. This kind of situation is in fact a true showcase of the things plants can do that conventional medicine cannot.

It's common to be given anti-inflammatories and told to ice ever after this initial period of intense swelling and trauma after a traumatic injury. Though it may be useful at first to prevent pain and excessive swelling, this will eventually prevent healing. At some point, you need to start with heat and get the blood in there to do it's work.