Not too long ago, there were only two real choices to treat pain: over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol or ibuprofen, or prescription medications. Any sort of holistic or naturopathic alternatives were quickly dismissed as quackery by the medical establishment and most “thinking” Americans.
The world has certainly changed since then.
Medical marijuana. CBD. Acupuncture. Botox. Yoga and meditation. All have gone mainstream.
So have essential oils and aromatherapy. Like many of those other alternative medicine approaches, essential oils have been used in non-Western cultures for hundreds or thousands of years. And as with of the other approaches, research now shows they may be just as good – or even better – for pain management.
Topical applications of essential oils (EOs) to treat sore muscles or even temporary back pain might make intuitive sense. But why would just smelling some pleasant scents make a noticeable difference when you’re suffering with serious or chronic pain?
The nose knows – and so do we. Let’s find out.
How Essential Oils Can Be Used for Pain
There are four primary methods that people use to administer essential oils, and most can be effective for the treatment of different types of body pain.
- Ingesting them: Let’s get this one out of the way first, because it’s a terrible idea. Even though some producers suggest swallowing EOs, or mixing them with food or hot water – medical experts and poison control centers warn against that. Not only can essential oils cause allergic reactions or digestive issues, they can also be poisonous when ingested.
- Topical application: In many cases, essential oils applied to the affected area can deliver effective pain-relieving effects, often via therapeutic massage. There’s an important warning to consider here, though. Undiluted essential oils often cause unwanted side effects like skin irritation or burns; any allergic reactions can also be magnified. An essential oil should always be diluted with carrier oil before topical application.
- Health or beauty products: A growing number of skin creams, ointments, salves, bath products and similar products have EOs blended into them. Many are good pain relief choices as well, because the other ingredients perform the same dilution as carrier oil.
- Aromatherapy: Here’s the one most of you were probably thinking of, and for good reason. It’s the most common and popular way to deliver the effects of essential oils. It can also be the most effective method for reaping the benefits of essential oils, depending on the type of pain you’re treating.
Since ingesting topical oils isn’t safe and applying skin cream is easy, we’ll focus more closely on the other two methods: aromatherapy and topical application.
Aromatherapy and Essential Oils for Pain
Aromatherapy is nothing new. It’s been used in civilizations around the world for thousands of years, with its purposes ranging from spiritual and ritual, to aesthetic and therapeutic. That last use, of course, is the important one for our discussion.
One of the first detailed descriptions of how essential oils could be used for health and wellness was in the work of Hippocrates, the so-called father of modern medicine. He regularly used EOs in his practice, writing that using them in baths and aromatherapy massages was the “way to health.”
People can inhale the scent of EOs in several ways. Inhalers are small sticks that hold a little essential oil and can be carried in a purse or pocket. There are pieces of jewelry, like necklaces and bracelets, which perform the same function. Scents made from essential oils can be worn to provide an ever-present, soothing scent.
And, of course, aromatherapy diffusers are not only a great way to spread scented EO molecules throughout a house. They’ve become a statement for many who live a holistic, natural lifestyle.
How can the admittedly-pleasant scents of essential oils actually provide pain relief? Most of the credit goes to the nervous system, and it all begins with the olfactory nerves in the nose.
Once essential oil molecules stimulate those nerves, the nervous system transmits messages to the brain – most importantly, its limbic system. That system is best-known for processing emotions, but it also controls a wide range of bodily functions including memory and hormone production, and even blood pressure, respiration and heart rate.
Scientists aren’t completely sure of the mechanisms by which this activity reduces pain. From a systematic review of the research, however, it appears that the limbic system is intricately connected to the way the body processes pain and determines the appropriate responses. Its control over emotional responses to pain is one part of the equation, and the brain’s ability to change acute to chronic pain apparently is another.
However it works, there’s little dispute: inhaling certain essential oils is able to affect – and by affect, we mean reduce – pain levels in many patients. A meta-analysis of 12 different studies on the subject, published in the journal Pain Research and Treatment, found significant evidence that aromatherapy was able to ease nearly all important types of pain.
The research showed that essential oils had the greatest impact on so-called nociceptive pain like bumps and bruises, sprains and fractures, and muscle pain. They have a strong positive effect on acute pain, too. Aromatherapy had a lesser but still noticeable ability to reduce inflammatory pain and chronic pain, with the greatest impact seen with postoperative and obstetric/gynecological pain.
Is aromatherapy a better choice than topical use of essential oils? We’ll look at that next.
Topical Application of Essential Oils for Pain
The use of skin care products containing essential oils, and even dropping an EO bath bomb into the tub, could certainly be considered “topical” use of the oils. However, essential oils are more likely to reduce pain through either topical application (with an appropriate carrier oil to dilute them, of course), or essential oil massages.
As you’d probably guess, they’re a very good choice to treat or manage external pain, from the temporary pain caused by muscle spasms and cramping, to longer-lasting chronic muscle and joint pain. The reason is surprisingly simple: many essential oils contain compounds with analgesic (pain-killing) properties. They include D-limonene, elemene, linalool, menthol and myrcene.
A number of those substances provide important antioxidant, anti-microbial, antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties as well. The latter are particularly important for the treatment of inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.
The essential oils can be applied to any painful area of the body (obviously, with the exception of the eyes, mouth and other bodily orifices). When used for general wellness or overall soreness, massage experts suggest focusing on the temples, chest, stomach and feet, but these EOs provide more direct relief when rubbed into the affected area, or the nerve centers or joints where pain is centered.
We’ve already mentioned carrier oils, but this bears repeating. Applying essential oils directly to the skin can cause allergic reactions, serious rashes or burns. Always dilute them by adding a few drops of essential oil to a carrier oil like coconut oil, olive oil, jojoba oil or sweet almond oil. Your skin will thank you.
Best Essential Oils for Pain
Many EOs have been shown to provide pain relief either by controlled research, clinical trials or anecdotal reports. Here are some of the best essential oils for pain.
One of the smartest choices for muscle pain, and the joint pain caused by arthritis, is eucalyptus essential oil. This pungent oil has been used by native healers for centuries, and eucalyptus-infused steam is often used to help asthma sufferers and those with sinus infections by loosening phlegm.
This essential oil also has analgesic properties, it’s a strong antioxidant, and it reduces inflammation – making it ideal for use by those suffering from inflammatory diseases or injuries that cause swelling. In one study, patients treated with eucalyptus oil after total knee replacement surgery found that their pain and blood pressure were each significantly reduced.
Lavender essential oil is a popular choice for those seeking to relieve stress and anxiety. Easing stress can certainly help ease pain, but the oil’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties make it a great EO to use to treatment the joint pain of arthritis. Studies have shown its effectiveness in relieving pain in those with both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Lavender oil is useful for many other types of pain, too. For example, topical applications have been shown to counter the pain caused when dialysis needles are inserted, to help ease the severe pain of migraines, and to provide relief for those suffering with menstrual cramps (dysmenorrhea) and pain.
Believe it or not, many consider peppermint to be the oldest medicinal plant in the world. And peppermint essential oil is terrific at easing surface and joint pain when applied topically, thanks to the natural menthol and methyl esters it contains.
It can provide relief when used in aromatherapy as well; in one study, peppermint EO was shown to significantly reduce pain and anxiety suffered by patients undergoing intravenous catheterization.
Here’s another essential oil commonly used to relieve stress, but its properties make it an excellent choice for topical pain relief, too. Research has shown that frankincense essential oil is able to suppress inflammation, making it (and its literary partner, myrrh) good alternatives for those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. It’s also an effective sedative, able to relax those suffering from more serious chronic pain. Some doctors even suggest capsules containing frankincense’s boswellic acid as a non-prescription treatment for arthritis.
Ginger doesn’t just make cookies and tea taste delicious. The essential oil derived from ginger has powerful anti-inflammatory properties, thanks to the enzyme known as zingibain that it contains. It’s effective at treating swelling, backaches and muscle aches, among other painful conditions.
Ginger’s anti-inflammatory effects can be welcome when it’s consumed orally, but for best results the EO should be used topically, massaged into the painful area. Tests on animal subjects have shown its effectiveness in treating rheumatoid arthritis, and human subjects with serious knee pain have benefited from similar positive results.
We think of it as a spice, but marjoram has been used for hundreds of years in Mediterranean and South Asian nations to treat muscle and joint swelling, spasms and stiffness. The herb contains a wealth of compounds with analgesic properties like d-limonene and anti-inflammatory properties like a- and b-pinene. Marjoram essential oil can ease surface pain quickly when applied together with a carrier oil.
The same stress-relieving, sedative properties contained in chamomile tea can be very helpful in relieving pain that’s exacerbated by stress or anxiety. That’s not all it’s good for, however. Chamomile essential oil also has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties which make it a valuable EO for external massage aimed at relieving pain, and even breaking down the uric acid deposits that cause gout.
A number of other essential oils have been shown to be effective at treating surface, serious and chronic pain. Some of the most commonly-used are clary sage, wintergreen, helichrysum and lemongrass.
Essential Oil Blends for Pain
All of these essential oils have properties which can help ease all types of surface and internal pain. They also can be combined into essential oil blends, which – depending on the EOs being combined – can either provide more powerful relief or several types of relief at the same time.
Several research studies have shown the effectiveness of different essential oil blends. In two examples, good results were obtained from mixes of lavender, chamomile and neroli, and lavender, juniper, rosemary and ylang-ylang.
Essential Oils Can Be Combined With Other Therapies
The effectiveness of essential oils to treat all types of pain is impressive, but they don’t necessarily have to be used on their own.
Integrative medicine practitioners make extensive use of aromatherapy and essential oils, but only as one element of a care plan that favors both complementary therapies (like yoga, acupuncture, meditation and homeopathic remedies) and conventional treatments. And even many “regular” doctors will have no objection to their patients trying aromatherapy or therapeutic massage with essential oils, as long as they’re not a replacement for standard medical treatment.
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