Comfrey ointment is used for treating sprains and broken limbs. The comfrey plant, or Symphytum officinale, has been included in the herbalist’s pharmacopeia for a very long time, and is often known as knitbone. The plant contains allantoin, which is a chemical compound that encourages cell growth. Ointments containing comfrey should be used with caution because the plant also contains pyrrolizidine — a chemical that is a heptotoxin. Heptotoxins are chemical substances that are toxic to the liver, and can damage it.
Native to Europe, comfrey has a large, turnip-like root, hairy leaves, and bell-shaped flowers that may be pink, white, yellow, blue, or purple. The plant is perennial, and the roots are often harvested in the spring or fall, when the allatoin levels are higher. The leaves and flowers are usually harvested when the plant starts flowering in early summer.
Homemade comfrey ointment is quite simple to make, and there are many different ways to prepare it. In one method, just use an oil, like olive oil, and infuse it with the herb by steeping leaves and flowers in it over low heat. Once the oil is infused, strain the plant matter out and mix some beeswax into the oil to create a thicker consistency.
Studies have shown that comfrey ointment is very effective in healing broken bones, back pain, muscle pain, and relieving pain from arthritis. Care should be taken, however, to ensure that the ointment is not applied to an area with broken skin. Also, pyrrolizidine can be absorbed through the skin, and continual use can cause the chemical to build up in the body. The ointment should only be used for a short time, and under a doctor’s supervision.
Some experts warn that comfrey ointment made from the roots should be avoided entirely because it is too dangerous. They suggest that patients should stick with formulations that are composed of the leaves and flowers only. People who have cancer, alcoholism, or liver disease should not use a comfrey ointment. It should never be used on a child.
In the past, comfrey was used for gastrointestinal issues but, because it is a heptotoxin, it can cause liver failure or death when ingested. The use of comfrey is heavily restricted in many countries, like New Zealand, Canada, Germany, and the United States. In 2001, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered that all oral supplements containing comfrey be removed from store shelves.