I love herbal remedies for mild ailments that we can take care of at home, and my comfrey leaf salve has been a go-to for years. Comfrey has come under some scrutiny in medical literature, so let me take you through the benefits and risks of this pain-soothing, skin-nourishing herb.
What Is Comfrey Leaf?
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is a perennial herb with a black root. It has hairy broad leaves (that grow fast) and bell-shaped flowers that can vary in color.
Comfrey is native to Europe and parts of Asia but is now found in North America too.
For centuries, comfrey has been used for ailments like broken bones and other wound support. They called it “knit-bone” and “bone-set” for these abilities. In fact, comfrey’s Latin name Symphytum comes from the Greek symphis (“growing together”) and phyton (plant).
In keeping with its name, comfrey ointments have been used for centuries in folk medicine for:
- bone mending
- joint health
Comfrey contains many constituents that are thought to help with these uses. Two that are most associated with benefits are allantoin and rosmarinic acid.
Comfrey also contains nutrients such as vitamin C which is known to support collagen production in the skin and overall skin health.
Health Benefits of Comfrey
Here’s why comfrey leaves are a staple in my home, and why it’s been used for thousands of years:
Many cultures historically used comfrey on open wounds. It can be helpful beyond cuts and scrapes even. I’ve used comfrey for bug bites or bee stings, and to soothe a stinging nettle encounter. Science supports some of these uses as well.
A clinical overview published in 2012 shows that science backs traditional uses of comfrey for wound support. According to the overview, research suggests that comfrey can help reduce wound size as well as support collagen formation.
Additionally, “the healing time when using ointment containing comfrey extract was significantly shorter” compared to preparations with no active ingredients.
Helps Muscle and Joint Aches & Pains
As I mentioned, comfrey can help with wound healing in my experience, but its benefits to the body go deeper. Comfrey can help with pain inside of the body — either muscle or joint pain.
The 2012 overview mentioned above also found that comfrey is helpful in supporting healthy muscles and joints. Pain reduction was observed in the group using comfrey topically. In one of the studies, over half of participants suffering from joint pain found complete symptom resolution, while only about 5 percent had no improvement at all.
In another interesting study, researchers discovered that comfrey resolved symptoms more quickly than cryotherapy. Similar outcomes happened in studies focusing on lower back pain and osteoporosis pain. Overall, studies found that comfrey was helpful in supporting the relief of pain.
Supports Blunt Injury Recovery
Comfrey is most famously used as a poultice for broken bones. Allantoin is the constituent thought to be responsible for this benefit. Allantoin can diffuse through the skin and tissues to reach the affected area. Studies also suggest it supports tissue formation.
I once broke my pinky toe (actually, this has happened more than once thanks to late-night stumbling in the hall to get water for kids) and was told that this is not an injury that doctors can really help and that it would have to heal on its own.
I decided to research natural options to help with the pain and stumbled on information about comfrey in the process. After more research, I decided to make a poultice of comfrey leaf and plantain and apply to my broken toe several times a day.
Since I’d had this type of injury before, I knew that it often took several weeks at least to heal and that the pain often lasted this long. With twice-daily comfrey and plantain poultices, I noticed a reduction of pain within a few days and the pain was almost not-noticeable after one week!
By the second week, I was back to wearing whatever shoes I wanted! Now I’m a believer in the benefits of comfrey.
Uses for Comfrey
Comfrey clearly has many benefits and has earned a place in my natural remedy cabinet. Here are some of the best ways to use comfrey:
- As a poultice for bone breaks and ankle sprains, or muscle and joint pain. (A poultice is a paste made from herbs (and sometimes clays or other ingredients) that is put directly on the skin and covered with cloth.) This is the safest way to use herbs on the skin and is what I used on my broken toe.
- Ointment or healing salve for topical wound dressing – I use healing salves or liniments for wounds to keep them clean and help them close faster.
- Lip salve – I add herbs to lip balms and salves for the health benefits. In this case, adding comfrey can help support healthy lips and avoid chapped and cracked skin.
- Black drawing salve – I learned about this remedy from an Amish farmer who said it worked well from drawing out splinters and even spider venom. It’s a bit complicated to make but is very effective.
- After birth sitz bath – Recovery from childbirth can be difficult (especially if you struggle with a sick baby or postpartum depression). Add this herbal remedy to a bath or Peri Bottle to soothe soreness.
Some herbalists who still recommend internal use of comfrey (under specific guidelines) will use comfrey tea for digestive issues, respiratory issues, and urinary issues. I would not personally use it internally and recommend further research and checking with your doctor before you do.
Why? Read on…
Is Comfrey Safe?
Used externally, comfrey is generally considered safe for children three or four years old and older as well as most adults.
As I mentioned earlier, comfrey has come under some scrutiny. The reason is that studies have pointed to comfrey having side effects when taken internally. This is based on the fact that comfrey contains a number of pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can cause liver damage and liver disease.
Some herbalists argue that many studies that came to this conclusion isolated the pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA) and injected or fed them to animals at higher levels than herbalists would recommend. In the cases where people had negative health effects from ingesting comfrey, the intake of comfrey was also well above the recommended dosages.
Since the jury is out, to be on the safe side:
- Do not use comfrey on any type of broken or irritated skin.
- Do not use if pregnant, even for external use.
- Avoid it if you have liver problems or cancer.
- Do not use comfrey in combinations with anything else that affects the liver, such as pain relievers, alcohol, and prescription medications
- Do not use in combination with herbs such as kava, skullcap, valerian, or CBD oil.
That being said, I like to err on the side of caution and avoid internal use of comfrey if possible. One reason is that there is likely another safer herb I can use in place of comfrey in ingestible preparations.
As always, consult a doctor and/or qualified herbalist before using this or any herb!
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Jennifer Walker, an internal medicine physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor or work with a doctor at SteadyMD.
Ever used comfrey to help a broken bone or other use? Share below!