Topical Treatments for Inflammation


Note: While this article discusses, in part, the medicinal properties of various herbs, it is not meant as a substitute for proper medical advice. Please consult with your medical practitioner before using any type of remedy, herbal or otherwise.

By Cristi Nunziata, Herbal Education Coordinator

Inflammation is the body’s response to injury and infection or the result of autoimmune conditions. While in some cases the use of pharmaceutical and over the counter anti-inflammatory drugs may be necessary and should be considered on an individual basis, when a minor injury is to blame, pharmaceuticals can often be avoided by turning to herbal allies instead. Topical use of herbs, in the form of a compress, bath, homeopathic preparation, or infused oil or essential oil, is a gentle way to address inflammation while avoiding potential side effects of drugs or the internal use of herbs.

A compress is made by dipping a towel in tea and applying it to the affected area. To keep the compress warm, keep a tea- filled kettle or crock pot close by. In either case, remoisten and reapply the tea-drenched towel whenever it begins to cool. Ginger, which is warming and anti-inflammatory, is  a great herb to consider using in a compress.

A bath or footbath is also a great way to enjoy ginger topically. This is made by adding freshly grated or dried ginger to the hot water. Start with a small amount and increase it, based on your preferences, but use caution not to irritate the skin.

Homeopathic creams and gels are used for inflammation of the muscles, joints and nerves. Arnica and St. Johns Wort are commonly used in this way.  Unlike ginger, Arnica should be used externally only and St. Johns Wort should be used internally only under the guidance of a health care practitioner if you are currently taking medications.

You may also use Arnica and St. Johns Wort infused oils. These are made by letting the plant infuse in oil, often olive oil, for 4-6 weeks. Then, the herbs are strained out, leaving healing properties behind in the oil. In addition to Arnica and St. Johns Wort, Calendula is commonly available in the form of an infused oil. Calendula’s anti-inflammatory effects are great for inflamed skin, as in wounds, burns and rashes.

One final topical preparation to consider for inflammation is the use of essential oils. Essential oils are volatile oils, responsible for the smell and taste of plants, which have been extracted by distillation. They are very concentrated and should be used sparingly. Some favorites for inflammation are chamomile and lavender. Add just a few drops of an essential oil to any of the treatments discussed above.

In addition to being milder and less prone to causing side effects, using herbs topically provides a pampering experience. Herbs create a nurturing approach to healing an area of your body that has been injured.  Next time you are hurt, try some of the above treatments rather than popping a pill.