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You may never have heard of arnica if you’re not British. It’s an unproven herbal remedy which is bizarrely also a homeopathic remedy, but which is almost universally accepted as effective in Britain: midwives, nurses, doctors ... all sorts of people will say that it reduces bruising. The National Health Service will buy it for you if your doctor prescribes it – and many do.

On one hand, there’s no clinical proof that Arnica montana will do much other than poison you (if you eat a lot of it). On the other hand, it can be unpleasant to try to tell people that this wonder herb is just another pretty flower; and maybe women are especially eager to avoid this sort of awkward scepticism. And maybe this makes me more vulnerable to quackery.

So my dearest friend gives birth, and I'm going around with her mother from out-of-town who is picking up a few things, and she's buying homeopathic arnica: Little pellets of sugar that was once introduced to sterile water that was once introduced to other water which was once introduced to arnica which is a flower. The big Boots shop in our town (the biggest pharmacy chain in the country, comparable to CVS in the US) had a brand-new complementary therapies section and a young "Alternative Therapies Assistant" whose job was to direct the innocent towards the appropriate sort of buncombe. And he helps her to find the arnica.

I started chatting with this Alternative Therapies Assistant about what was in the little tablets (homeopaths use the term “pillules”, which is the French for “pills”). He had no trouble admitting that the tablets were certainly entirely free of arnica, and that the whole theory of homeopathy was unsupported by any clinical evidence ... and I was being polite but, shall we say, strident.

The young fellow was taking it well – he wasn't lying about any of the "therapies" sold in his section, and he was answering all my questions very politely. I'd almost forgot about my friend's mum. I hadn't noticed her getting redder and redder in the face until she burst out with, "The MIDWIFE says that she NEEDS the arnica to stop her BRUISING!", she snatched the little tube of placebos from the man and bustled to the till to exchange good money for little bits of chalk.

I was sceptical and assertive in a retail environment, and I don’t think that’s socially awkward or unfeminine. (I learned it from my mother, anyway.) Being assertive in the face of authority might be, but disagreeing with Conventional Wisdom, and doing so in a way which threatens to deprive others of a "therapy" is unwelcome.
Had I been very academic, and given her copies of scientific papers to prove my point; had I been very sensitive, and gently explained it all over coffee in Starbucks instead of making a scene in the chemist's; had I been Miss Sweetness and Light instead of the Stern Schoolmistress ... no difference. What I was doing was standing between the Loved One and the Therapy. Maybe this makes women at special risk of quackery.

According to iVillage.co.uk, a web site aimed at women, “Arnica works by stimulating the activity of white blood cells which process congested blood, and by dispersing trapped fluids from joints and muscles and bumped and bruised tissue. It also has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial qualities and it is these that help to reduce pain and swelling as well as improving wound healing.” Pretty impressive claims for any substance, you would think: that “congested blood” stuff in particular. But even setting aside these magical claims and mumbo-jumbo medical terms, something fishy is going on.

One of the main principles of homeopathy is that “like cures like”. This means that to cure bruising and inflammation, you’re meant to take a substance that causes bruising and inflammation, soak it in alcohol to create a “mother tincture” which is then diluted over and over again until there is nothing of the “mother tincture” left. Then you dilute it more, shaking well each time. (The shaking is important: it helps the water “remember” the mother tincture. Homeopaths have a word for it: “sucussing”.) Surely the last thing you’d ever want to use to cure bruising with homeopathy is arnica! Yet often the same source advises using herbal arnica (made out of comparatively strong solutions of arnica) and homeopathic arnica.

I've had more than one arnica moment. Once I was told that my older daughter had bumped her head at school and had been given Arnica cream. This isn’t arnica in homeopathic (i.e. nonexistent) quantities: it’s a tincture of the herb mixed in with some creamy base.

I was livid: this girl has a number of allergies, and all I needed was a day of antihistamines and steroids because some quack remedy provoked a reaction or was provided in a base containing soya oil or something she’s allergic to. I completely lost it on the care assistant: "You won't give her a bloody children’s Tylenol without phoning me at work, but this rubbish you're willing to rub in higgledy-piggledy?!" (I probably didn't actually say "higgledy-piggledy", but you get the idea.)
The headmistress had a word with me about being harsh on her staff -- and I suppose I might have used a more moderate tone -- but what really made it difficult for the people at school to understand was the idea that I should oppose the use of a well-known and widely-accepted quack remedy. I was standing between my little girl and her “therapy”.

So maybe I'm breaking the social convention of being a "good girl" and accepting what Authorities have to say, and maybe that makes a sceptical message less-effective. More important, perhaps, is the idea that openly expressing scepticism about some (important!) subjects equals coming between a sufferer and a "therapy". So it’s easy to see why the British are so fond of their arnica. Nobody, not even the National Health Service, wants to be so rude as to tell anyone else that it’s just a tube of sugar pills.

Dr Lynette Davidson lectures and writes on history. She lives in a charming market town in the south of England with her partner and two daughters.


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