Comfrey is an herb with a long history of healing. In the chariot races of ancient Rome, comfrey leaves were applied to injuries to stop heavy bleeding. And from the time of Alexander the Great to World War I, army medics relied on the herb's power as a topical treatment for wounds. Native Americans considered comfrey a sacred healing plant and drank it as a tea, as well as using it topically.
In medical texts, comfrey was a staple before the invention of anti- biotics, and medical journals described some seemingly miraculous results. Holly Lucille, ND, author of The Healing Power of Trauma Comfrey, recounts some documented cases, including one where comfrey poultices healed a seriously injured foot that otherwise would have been amputated. In another, comfrey poultices healed a seemingly untreatable, malignant tumor on a man's face.
Like many herbs, comfrey was replaced by drugs in modern medicine, but it also faced another problem: potential toxicity. In addition to healing components, most comfrey plants contain toxic substances known as a pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), which can harm the liver when ingested. Consequently, comfrey products are sold only for topical use.
According to Lucille, PAs have difficulty crossing the skin barrier, but many comfrey products still carry warnings, especially in the case of open wounds. There are comfrey plants, however, that have been bred to contain no PAs in their leaves, or have had their PAs removed. Some products are also formulated to contain minute amounts of PAs.
In Germany, where comfrey is regulated as a licensed medicine, there are official guidelines for PA levels, and small amounts are considered to be safe. In the US, there are no similar guidelines, and some American herbalists believe that the risk from PAs in comfrey has been inaccurately assessed and overstated. Because some toxicity warnings may be overzealous, the herb has at times been overlooked as a viable natural remedy.
Topical comfrey products can speed up healing of sprains, strains, bruises, sore muscles, pulled ligaments and tendons, cuts and scrapes, and fractures. They can also reduce back and joint pain. The herb's beneficial substances include:
Allantoin:Promotes wound healing and increases production of white blood cells, which wards off infection. Once absorbed by the skin, allantoin can reach and heal cartilage, tendons, and bones. Allantoin is a key ingredient in many personal care products that help to moisturize and soothe skin.
Rosmarinic Acid: Fights inflammation and swelling, and slows down cell damage. It reduces production of excess fluid by cells in damaged tissues.
Comfrey creams or ointments tested in studies have typically been those without any PAs, such as Traumaplant Comfrey Cream or German products that aren't available in the United States. Altogether, published studies have included more than 600 people, including children as young as age 3.
According to a review published in Phytotherapy Research, topical comfrey without PAs is both safe and effective for joint pain and swelling from arthritis, muscle pain, back pain, sprains and strains from sports or other accidents, and for contusions. The reviewers also concluded that it is safe for children age 3 or older.
Gaia HerbsNature's First Aid Comfrey Compound, made with ecologically harvested comfrey root, works magic on bites, abrasions, sore muscles, and more.
Herb PharmComfrey Extract liquid extract uses only certified organic dried comfrey root and alcohol, and can be applied directly to skin.
Traumaplant Comfrey Cream is made with all of the beneficial components of the plant-blossoms, leaves, and stems.
Some comfrey creams, balms, and tinctures are recommended only for short-term use, and some warn against use on open wounds. Other topical products combine small amounts of comfrey with other healing ingredients, such as aloe.
Look for a topical comfrey product that suits your personal needs. For example, for chronic joint or back pain; to treat cuts, abrasions, or other open wounds; or for children, consider a cream that contains no PAs and does not warn against such uses. For an overall soothing effect, creams or ointments with a combination of ingredients may be appropriate. Tinctures are another option, and may be prepared to contain only minute amounts of PAs.
To treat an open wound, Lucille says, first stop the bleeding and clean the area, and if necessary, get stitches or surgery to close the wound. Apply a PA-free Traumaplant Comfrey Cream before the area is wrapped with gauze or bandages. In most cases, clean the wound and reapply the cream and bandages three times daily.
When using comfrey, follow product directions and warnings. Or consult a trained herbalist, or a naturopathic or integrative physician who is well versed in herbal medicine.
Comfrey has been used since ancient times to heal wounds and prevent infections.
Vera Tweed has been writing about nutrition, fitness, and healthy living since 1997. She specializes in covering research and expert knowledge that empowers people to lead better lives. She is the author of numerous books, including Hormone Harmony and the User's Guide to Carnitine and Acetyl-L-Carnitine.