The Benefits of Comfrey Cream

Woman applying ointment on her arm
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Comfrey cream is a natural substance made from Symphytum officinale, an herb in the borage family. Also known as comfrey ointment, salve, or gel, it's said to reduce inflammation and alleviate pain when applied topically (i.e., directly to the skin). Proponents claim that comfrey cream can treat a variety of health conditions and injuries.

Comfrey cream contains several substances thought to possess beneficial properties, including anti-inflammatory compounds and allantoin (a substance thought to speed up wound healing by stimulating the growth of new cells).

Why People Use It

Comfrey cream is typically used as a topical herbal remedy for painful muscle and joint conditions, such as low back pain, osteoarthritis, and sprains. It's also used in alternative medicine for the following problems:

  • Bruises
  • Fractures
  • Gout
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Sprains and strains
  • Wounds

The Benefits

Here's a look at some key findings on the potential health benefits of comfrey cream:

1) Back Pain

Comfrey cream could help ease back pain, suggests a 2010 study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The study included 120 patients with acute upper or lower back pain, each of whom were treated with comfrey ointment or a placebo for five days. Study results revealed that pain intensity decreased an average of 95.2 percent in the group given comfrey ointment (compared to 37.8 percent in the placebo group).

2) Osteoarthritis

Comfrey cream may help treat osteoarthritis of the knee, according to a study published in Phytomedicine in 2007. For the study, 220 people with osteoarthritis of the knee were assigned to three weeks of treatment with either comfrey ointment or a placebo. By the study's end, those who used the comfrey ointment had experienced a significantly greater improvement in pain, mobility, and quality of life (compared to members of the placebo group).

Additionally, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine found that comfrey ointment was superior to a placebo in relieving pain and stiffness and enhancing physical functioning. The study involved 43 patients with knee osteoarthritis and a six-week treatment period.

However, a later study (published in Osteoarthritis Cartilage in 2012) found some evidence that a topical comfrey cream containing comfrey extract reduced pain, but had no effect on markers of inflammation or cartilage breakdown over 12 weeks of treatment.

3) Ankle Sprains

Several studies show that comfrey cream may be helpful in the treatment of ankle sprains. In a 2005 study published in Phytomedicine, for instance, researchers found that comfrey ointment may be just as effective as Diclofenac gel (a topically applied nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug) when it comes to reducing ankle-sprain-related pain. The study included 164 patients with ankle sprains, each of whom was treated for about a week.

4) Wound Healing

Comfrey cream shows promise in the treatment of wounds, according to a 2012 study published in the German journal Drug Research. The study involved 108 children (ages 3 to 12), each of whom had recently suffered an abrasion. Researchers assigned the children to treatment with a cream containing either 10 percent comfrey extract or 1 percent comfrey extract.

In those given the cream with the higher concentration of comfrey extract, a 50 percent healing rate was reached 0.9 days earlier (compared to those given the lower dose of comfrey). In addition, the children and their parents and physicians rated the effectiveness of the 10 percent cream as significantly greater than that of the 1 percent cream.

Possible Side Effects

Comfrey contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, substances that can cause liver damage, cancer, and even death, so it should be never be taken by mouth. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned oral comfrey products.

Since these toxic substances can be absorbed through the skin, there's concern about the safety of comfrey cream applied to the skin. It's typically only used in small amounts for a very short period of time. Experts suggest no longer than 10 days in a row and no longer than four to six weeks in a year as a general guideline, but it also depends on factors like skin thickness.

If you're considering using the cream, make sure to consult your healthcare provider first to weigh the pros and cons and to use it only under his or her supervision.

Never apply comfrey cream to broken skin or open wounds. Don't take it If you have liver disease, cancer, or are taking any medication that affects the liver. Children, elderly people, and pregnant or nursing women shouldn't use comfrey in any form.

The Takeaway

While studies suggest that comfrey cream may offer some pain-relieving benefits, large-scale clinical trials are needed to confirm these effects. Given the safety concerns, it should only be used under the supervision of your healthcare provider.

The number one cause of disability worldwide, back pain is often treated with medication (such as over-the-counter pain relievers). Other alternative therapies may help to ease the pain. For instance, studies show that undergoing massage or taking up yoga may help alleviate pain and help people with back or joint problems function more easily. There's also some evidence that topical capsaicin cream may help to temporarily relieve pain.

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Article Sources
  • Giannetti BM, Staiger C, Bulitta M, Predel HG. Efficacy and safety of comfrey root extract ointment in the treatment of acute upper or lower back pain: results of a double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled, multicentre trial. Br J Sports Med. 2010 Jul;44(9):637-41.

  • Grube B, Grünwald J, Krug L, Staiger C. Efficacy of a comfrey root (Symphyti offic. radix) extract ointment in the treatment of patients with painful osteoarthritis of the knee: results of a double-blind, randomised, bicenter, placebo-controlled trial. Phytomedicine. 2007 Jan;14(1):2-10.

  • Laslett LL, Quinn SJ, Darian-Smith E, et al. Treatment with 4Jointz reduces knee pain over 12 weeks of treatment in patients with clinical knee osteoarthritis: a randomised controlled trial. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2012 Nov;20(11):1209-16.

  • Predel HG, Giannetti B, Koll R, Bulitta M, Staiger C. Efficacy of a comfrey root extract ointment in comparison to a diclofenac gel in the treatment of ankle distortions: results of an observer-blind, randomized, multicenter study. Phytomedicine. 2005 Nov;12(10):707-14.
  • Smith DB, Jacobson BH. Effect of a blend of comfrey root extract (Symphytum officinale L.) and tannic acid creams in the treatment of osteoarthritis of the knee: randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind, multiclinical trials. J Chiropr Med. 2011 Sep;10(3):147-56.