Wednesday 3 February 2010

Herbal support for broken bones

I was sitting on Snow Hill station two weeks ago trying to tell Chris my train was on time when a text came into my mobile phone.

“My friend has a broken bone which won’t heal,” I read. “Can you recommend any herbs for her?”

The train was just pulling in and my texting abilities are not great, so I simply replied, “Comfrey and plantain.”

I hate giving single herb answers when asked a question. It falls into the “Take aspirin if you have a headache” mentality of allopathic medicine which does not allow any opportunity to think “What’s happening here?”, “What part of the body needs supporting?” and “Which herbs might be suitable for this situation and why?” So this is a more considered response to the original query.

Fractured bones are serious conditions. If you fracture a long bone and it isn’t dealt with in time, you can die. I first came across this during a Medical Services Committee hearing when a GP failed to diagnose a fractured neck of femur in an elderly lady who fell out of bed. The doctor on the Committee which was there to decide whether or not the GP was in breach of his terms and conditions of service to the NHS was not impressed.

“You do realised this lady could have died?” he said. “You were lucky her husband rang for an ambulance after you left the house.”

It was a sobering thought and one I had cause to remember a few years later when a woman with mental health problems slipped off the fourth floor windowsill of her locked ward onto an inaccessible concrete triangle between three buildings. It took the firemen an hour to reach her and none of the hospital staff would touch her until the ambulance men arrived. She didn’t die from the fall, but from breaking all her long bones. She lost so much fluid her blood pressure fell to a point of no return.

So what actually happens when you break a bone? A really good tutorial of the physical components can be found here. In a nutshell, the blood forms a clot and the bone is stimulated to form new collagen to hold the bone together which is gradually ossified, healing the break.

What really surprised me was the length of time it takes for a break to heal even at the most normal rate. We are talking about 3-4 weeks for the bony callous to form and a further three to four months for the bone to bind together with remodelling inside the bone taking place for several months after that.

This means anyone who breaks a bone needs to be thinking of supporting that part of the body for a good six months afterwards. Nothing is going to mend within a couple of weeks.

So how can a bone fracture be best supported from a herbal perspective? The most useful discussion I found was begun by Persimmon on the Herbwifery Forum back in 2007. She had been involved in an accident which resulted in a badly damaged ankle. She was using her inherent herbal knowledge to inform her own treatment and asked for any further suggestions to her protocol.

I thought the way she set things out was really useful, which is why I am repeating it here.

(i) Bone healing is an inflammatory process, so don’t take any medication which is anti-inflammatory. This means you don’t take ‘ibu-profen’ or ‘nurofen’ for the pain because these are both “non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs” (NSAIDs). Persimmon also recommends not taking any supplements which are targeted at inflammation.

You don’t need to take the same precautions with anti-inflammatory herbs. Calendula is a great anti-inflammatory, but is actually recommended for healing fractures by Henriette Kress.

(ii) You need adequate mineral intake, preferably through food. Persimmon recommends calcium in particular but also magnesium and trace minerals. If someone won’t change their diet, chewable calcium carbonate (CaCO3) can be taken.

So where do we get the minerals? It’s back to nettles and oatstraw, possibly with red clover thrown in for good measure. These can be made into long infusion teas as per Susun Weed’s method (2 ozs dried herb covered with 16 fl.ozs (2US pints) boiling water in a large jar/jug left covered overnight and the resulting strained infusion drunk hot or cold throughout the following day).

If it’s spring/summer/autumn, I’d also do a fresh herb maceration overnight with cold water. (Gather as many herbs as you like, cover with cold water in a clean plastic bowl, leave overnight in a cool place, strain and drink the following morning.)

Minerals are best extracted in cider vinegar, so you could also take 2tsp herb infused vinegar (nettle, motherwort, mugwort) in cold water or with 2 tsp honey in a mug of boiling water several times a day.

You also need to eat lots and lots of green leafy vegetables (cabbage, sprouts, kale and other brassicas) unless you have an underactive thyroid, in which case you need to think carefully about your greens!

Susun Weed has a good mineral rich soup recipe here.

(iii) You also need adequate protein intake for making new collagen. Bone broth is really useful made with marrow bones. Jim Macdonald has a nice recipe and method here, I have one here. (You'll need to scroll down to the very bottom of the article for the recipe.)

Vegetarians and Vegans may be surprised if they suddenly get cravings for steak at this time. I’ve had vegetarian friends tell me about this phenomenon. It usually happens when the body is anaemic and needs an easily digested and absorbed protein source.

(iv) You will need to increase your fibre and water intake, especially if you have been taking a narcotic based pain killer (morphine, codeine & derivatives and dia-morphine). These medications cause serious constipation. If this happens you may not feel like eating. If you do become constipated, you need to not become reliant on senna or other commercial products because they will lessen the ability of the lower bowel to constrict. Lots of fibre, marshmallow, yellow dock, psyllium husks etc are all useful herbal allies.

You might be wondering where comfrey and plantain come into the equation. Comfrey has a long history of helping to heal bones. Matthew Wood has cautioned about not using comfrey too early, especially not before the fracture has been set or this may result in new bone growth and the bone having to be rebroken because it has healed in the wrong position.

You need to be aware of the discussions around comfrey and hepatoxic PSAs before you decide to use it, so you can make an informed decision. One thing to remember is that comfrey’s historical use has mainly been external, not internal, so it needs to be applied either as a poultice (bruise the leaves and apply to the skin, changing every three hours or so), a fomentation (mash the herb with water and apply as a hot poultice, replacing once cold) or an infused oil.

The dilemma is often lack of access to the site of the break once a cast has been put on. Some people have reverted to pushing comfrey leaves inside the cast when they can or waiting until the cast is removed and then applying liberal amounts of comfrey infused oil to the skin.

Plantain can be used in exactly the same way as comfrey, with the added advantage of being taken internally at the same time as externally either as a tea or tincture.

It is interesting that Dr Christopher’s classic Tissue and Bone Formula, has now replaced comfrey with plantain. The original recipe was comprised from oak bark, comfrey leaves, marshmallow root, mullein herb, walnut bark (or leaves), gravel root, wormwood, lobelia and skullcap. The current formula now includes white oak bark, lungwort, slippery elm bark, marshmallow root, mullein leaf, black walnut leaf, gravel root, wormwood herb, plantain leaf, skullcap herb, lobelia herb and aloe vera gel powder.

If you are thinking about making up your own formula, you need to be aware that lobelia is classified as a Class 3 herb in the UK which means it is only supposed to be dispensed by qualified herbalists. It is also a powerful emetic if you take too much, so miniscule drop doses only and preferably talk to someone who uses lobelia regularly before you experiment!

There are other herbs which are useful in the treatment of broken bones. Susun Weed recommends using St John's Wort tincture for infection free healing and preventing nerve damage for broken bones. The dose is 25-30 drops 1-2x day. Henriette Kress says that SJW oil used externally is good for swelling associated with broken bones.

Kiva Rose and Jim MacDonald recommend using a mallow, mullein and comfrey poultice for painful, swollen broken bones. They also recommend using a small dose of horsetail tincture in with other herbs when the break is fresh, or as a single dose (1-5 drops three times a day) if an old break won’t heal. Kiva writes about her experience here.

It has been a fascinating process putting this article together. Now, instead of a gut response of two major herbs, if someone asks me about broken bones again, I can help them understand what the process of bone healing is and which herbs and foods can be helpful to support the broken bone in the best possible way.


Minnie said...

I follow you blog but only lurk. I'm only a learner in the herbs dept and I hope you don't mind me asking for some advice?

I have steadily worsening arthritis and often feel like my bones are breaking. It's very debilitating and is ruining my life at the mo. The doctor has told me to take paracetamol and ibuprofen as I am a bit too young (as if) to take stronger meds). The tablets just make me tired and don't really help enough for my liking.

I have read that boswellia (shallaki) is helpful for arthritis. Do you know if this is so and if there are any other good herbal remedies I could take? Who are the reputable suppliers? It would be just my luck to pick the dodgy ones! Or is there a site/book you could point me to for information?


Comfrey Cottages said...

lovely article sarah:) yes, herbals are in no way like band aid medicine and it has been so fascinating to read all about what you have learned about broken bones! it is time consuming to thoroughly research a subject and i appreciate your effort that went into this! thank you so very much for sharing!

Sarah Head said...

Hi Minnie, It's really difficult to give advice over a blog, it would be better if you saw a qualified herbalist close to you who would work with you. If you go to it will give you the 6 nearest herbalists to you. Is it rheumatoid arthritis you have or a different kind? The only suggestions I have is to look to liver supporting herbs such as dandelion and burdock and perhaps try an exclusion diet for dairy, wheat and the nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes and all kinds of sweet peppers). I've not heard of using Boswellia for arthritis as I don't follow Ayevedic medicine and I prefer to use local plants if I can. I do hope you find something to help you.

Rosalee said...

Great blogpost - thanks!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks from me too, this is a very useful post.


Nanette said...

I had a compound fracture of my arm just over a year ago, and was recommended to take a homeopathic remedy "Symphytum"......not herbal I know, but very good. I was lucky?? to not have a cast, as my arm had to be repaired surgically with plates screwed in, so I was able to use a comfrey ointment once the incisions had healed.

I took a mega dose mineral supplement, religiously ate my greens, and also massaged my whole arm and hand daily with a Chinese herbal liniment called Zhen Gu Shui,which I was told helped in producing osteoblats/blasts?..

The bones were very badly broken, one radiologist said it looked I had 4 elbows! The surgeons were amazed at how quickly the bones healed, they sent me back for more xrays as they thought the first lot hadn't been done right,that was 6 weeks after the accident, and it was really clear on the xrays they were knitted nicely. It took a little longer for them to be able to be weight bearing, but
all good now.

Now the ongoing nerve and soft tissue in my hand....that's another story :)


Sarah Head said...

Thanks for sharing your story, Nanette. Have you tried using SJW infused oil and/or tincture for your hand? There's a discussion going on in Henriette's email list at the moment and Jim Macdonald has had good success in bringing back nerve function with SJW.

Doyu Shonin said...

We have both comfrey and plantain here in quantity so I read this with considerable interest. Many thanks!

Unknown said...

Hi Minnie :)

You may find Boswellia in stores as "boswellic acids" or "frankincense" - but my girlfriend with RA started taking it (boswellia serrata extract) recently and noticed an immediate improvement. She discontinued methotrexate and even without other herbs the use of her hands is much improved. Everyone's body is different - (for her, devil's claw helps more than turmeric and boswellia more than either), so you may have different results, of course. ..but after you research and feel comfortable with it, I do think it's worth taking ~800mg per day and seeing if you notice a difference in the first week.

Julene said...

I stumbled upon this site while looking for herbal bone remedies for my husband's possible fracture. I love this blog! I would love to follow you on Facebook, does your blog have a Facebook page?

Sarah Head said...

Hi Julene, I don't have a FB page for the blog, but I do have one for Springfield Sanctuary.

chamoisee said...

Belle: symphytum = comfrey. FWIW.

Sarah Head said...

You can also make a tonic wine to help support bone healing, especially if there has been hospitilisation and significant pain management. Soak fresh nettle tops, plantain, dandelion leaves or crushed milk thistle seeds, together with diced prunes or figs and orange peel. in a good red wine for 2-3 weeks, then strain and drink. Daily dose is a small sherry glass or shot glass. Use within a month. Keep chilled.

Wes said...

Turmeric really helped me with natural anti-inflammation.

Susie Arnett said...

If I have dried nettles, can I put them in a vitamix blender as part of a smoothie or do i need to put them in hot water to get the most benefit?

Sarah Head said...

Hi Susie, it depends how much liquid you have in the other constituents of your smoothie. You could experiment with adding dried nettles to the mix or soak them in hot water overnight or cold water overnight and see which variation you prefer. I tend to add dried nettles to soup where you already have lots of liquid and save fresh nettles which I have scalded for one minute for adding to smoothies or other cold drinks or dips.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sarah,
Great info, thank you! Question, my mom recently fractured her hip, they have put in pins. She is 75,and very run down. Low iron, etc. She has been a functioning alchoholic my entire life but in that past 6 months hardly eats. I will be taking her home with me after she is released from the hospital. I'm planning green Smoothies, herbal teas and bone broth soups.(she has trouble swallowing) and no alcohol. Just wondering if there is any additional items you would add to the above information to help increase iron, help with the alcoholism etc?? All information is very much appreciated.

Sarah Head said...

So sorry to hear about your mother's troubles. My first advice would be to find an experienced medical herbalist near you. If you can let me know where in the world you are I might be able to suggest someone. If she has trouble swallowing, can you get the hospital to check this out by an occupational therapist? She may have suffered a stroke. If so, you'll need advice on thickened drinks etc. Paul Bergner is an ex-alcoholic and works a lot with herbal honeys, you might want to look at his website or email him for advice. You'll need to look at herbs for liver support - crushed milk thistle seeds spring to mind. Remember that the body can't absorb iron without vitamin C. I think the route you are taking -bone broth etc is the most helpful for your mother. It's going to be stressful looking after her, so make sure you get support. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Hi, sorry for your moms condition. Kudzu works absoult wonders for alcohol cravings. I've used the leaves and it's really stunning. You just loose all desire to consume alcohol without even realizing. Best wishes..

Earth Mama said...

Have you heard of waterproof casts? Gore tex liner against the skin which breathes, and drains and dries in an hour after wetting it. Mesh which overlays liner and forms a rigid cast is permeable. I could soak my casted arm in anything!! I am healing multiple breaks in my radius at the wrist end of the bone. Could I make a comfrey tea from fresh leaves to help heal my wrist? thank you!

Earth Mama said...

I meant comfrey tea to soak my wrist in...

lharris said...

As always, many thanks for your great articles! I wish you could have been an instructor in our school system, you give so much information that applies to daily living!!
Blessings to you, Lisa

Unknown said...

Hi, thank you for your down-to-earth article :-)
I heard about someone applying crushed comfrey leaf to a sensitive tooth to help it heal. Do you have any experience or advice on this? I have bad teeth - it runs in my family - and I'd like to avoid getting more root canals for as long as possible.

Sarah Head said...

I wouldn't apply comfrey to a sensitive tooth purely because you don't know what you might be hiding underneath any new growth stimulated by the comfrey. My advice to people is usually to invest in an electric toothbrush and become scrupulous about mouth and gum hygiene. If your teeth are sensitive, use a sensitive toothpaste and an antiseptic mouthwash made from sage tea. Eat lots of green vegetables along with lots of nettles so you are sure to get your minerals and vitamins. You might also want to take a look at horsetail. Think about how much calcium you are getting from a variety of sources. If you have been avoiding dairy throughout your life for whatever reason, then think about taking a calcium rich supplement. You can make one easily enough by adding egg shells to a nettle infused vinegar. Good luck!