Unless you've been living under a rock, you've been hearing a lot about essential oils lately. Perhaps you've started to dabble in them yourself.
When you think about it, if you have ever sprinkled cinnamon onto your toast or sipped peppermint tea, you have consumed some essential oil compounds.
We've heard that essential oils can cure everything from anxiety and depression to cancer.
But, what's the real story here? What are essential oils and how do they work? Can essential oils help with my pain?
Essential oils have been used for centuries for their therapeutic and medicinal benefits. There has been a lot of interest in them lately as a more holistic approach to wellness.
Let's examine the science behind essential oils without the kooky crystal magic and woo-woo gimmicks.
Use this guide as a crash course to essential oils and how to get started with them.
What is an essential oil?
Essential oils are not essential to our bodies, so to speak, but rather essential to the well-being of a plant.
What we know as essential oils are the highly concentrated version of natural oils found in plants.
We get essential oils from plants through the process of distillation by steam or water. In this process, multiple parts of the plant are used including the roots, leaves, flowers, stems, or bark.
The end result of distillation is a highly concentrated oil which contains not only the fragrance of the plant but also its therapeutic benefits. It's not hard to imagine why this is a desirable thing.
The most common therapeutic use of essential oils is by way of aromatherapy. Aromatherapy simply means that the healing effects are achieved through the aromas of the oils. They often have an uplifting effect on the human mind.
Aromatherapy has been proven to be an inexpensive, noninvasive way to treat a variety of conditions. For example, it helps with post-operative nausea, improves sleep quality, and more.
More on ways to use essential oils later.
Many essential oils are also thought to have potent antiseptic properties to reduce chances of infection when applied to the skin.
How to use essential oils
You are ready to use your essential oils for pain relief. Now what?
The three ways to use essential oils, including for pain relief, are aromatherapy, topical application, and ingestion.
There are a number of ways to enjoy your essential oils through aromatherapy.
The sense of smell is very powerful; it can elicit strong physical, mental, and emotional responses. Smell receptors go straight to the limbic system in your brain which supports functions like smell, memory, emotions, and behavior.
Some essential oils, like bergamot, spearmint, grapefruit, and wild orange have more invigorating effects. Meanwhile, others like lavender, ylang-ylang, and eucalyptus have more calming effects.
You can also find essential oil blends (or make them yourself) for many different things like restful sleep, open respiratory passages, headaches, and more. Find recipes here.
You could use a diffuser which uses water to diffuse the essential oil into the air.
Or, simply put 1-2 drops into your hand and breathe deeply.
You could also put some oil onto a cotton ball and place into your car vents, dilute a few drops of oil into a spray bottle with water to spray on furniture or carpet, or use in your household cleaners or laundry soap.
Topical application of essential oils is an effective method because they easily penetrate the skin. You can up the therapeutic effect by increasing absorption with light massage.
You will want to use a carrier oil with your essential oil when using on the skin. A good carrier oil promotes moisturization of the skin and muscle relaxation. The carrier oil is literally carrying the essential oil onto the skin.
Common carrier oils include:
- sweet almond oil
- coconut oil
- jojoba oil
- argan oil
- olive oil
- avocado oil
Essential oils are strong and potent. Generally, they should account for only 1 to 2% of the total blend of something you plan to use topically (lotion, massage oil, and so on).
We tend to like fractionated coconut oil for a few reasons: It is inexpensive, highly accessible, has no scent, and doesn't stain clothes. Besides, nowadays is there anything coconut oil can't do?
Good places to use essential oils topically:
- temples and forehead
- chest and back
- arms, legs, and bottoms of feet
Bad places to use essential oils topically:
- open wounds or broken skin
- delicate areas of the face
- eyes and inner ears
Some essential oils have a rich culinary history and can even be used as dietary supplements.
Still, internal use of essential oils has been a controversial method. However, it is thought that many oils are safe for ingestion.
That's not to say that you should take a spoonful of lavender oil every day for ‘prevention'. It doesn't work like that.
Remember, essential oils are highly concentrated and potent so you only need a tiny bit. They are much stronger than the dried or fresh herbs and spices you typically use in cooking.
Culinary use is the most basic form of internal essential oil use.
Here are some ideas:
- Put a drop of cinnamon, lavender, or rose oil into your cake batter
- Use a drop of lemon oil in your sparkling water for homemade soda
- Use a drop of cilantro, lime, or coriander in guacamole
- Incorporate basil or rosemary oil into olive oil to dip your Italian bread
The possibilities are endless. Just make sure you're using common sense when it comes to ingesting oils.
Check out this collection of (mostly) healthy recipes incorporating essential oils such as lavender lemonade, guacamole, roasted chicken, and more.
Essential oils for pain
Good news: essential oils help relieve pain and there is plenty of research to support this.
Of course, some oils are better than others for pain relief. Here is what to focus on:
In this animal study, researchers found that induced inflammation was reduced with pre-treatment with oral intake of lavender essential oil and its pain-relieving effects were similar to that of the drug tramadol.
Another study revealed that a group of people who inhaled lavender essential oil during an acute migraine attack reported much better response to pain when compared to the placebo group. Ninety-two of 129 headache attack cases responded to lavender while 32 of 68 responded with placebo (liquid paraffin).
This study of pediatric patients undergoing tonsillectomy suggested that aromatherapy with lavender essential oils reduced the amount of pain medication needed all three post-operative days following surgery.
Research has suggested that use of topical rose oil in combination with topical diclofenac was more effective in relieving menstrual pain after 30 minutes when compared to topical diclofenac alone.
Another study revealed that topical rose oil helped to significantly decrease back pain intensity in pregnant women after 4 weeks when compared to placebo or no intervention. It was also noted that there were no significant side effects.
If you are pregnant, it would be a good idea to discuss with your doctor before using essential oils.
A study comparing Swedish massage with ginger oil and traditional massage revealed that massage with ginger oil was more effective in reducing chronic low back pain and disability in the short term (6 weeks) and long term (15 weeks).
Essential oil blend
This study assessed the effectiveness of a cream containing marjoram, lavender, black pepper, and peppermint in people with neck pain. The intervention group experienced less pain, improved pain tolerance in the trapezius muscles, less disability, and better range of motion when compared to the control group after 4 weeks.
Another study showed that a daily 5-minute hand massage in terminal cancer patients with a blend of bergamot, lavender, and frankincense oils showed more significant differences in pain and depression when compared to hand massage with only sweet almond oil.
In a group of 40 patients with arthritis, an aromatherapy blend of lavender, rosemary, marjoram, eucalyptus, and peppermint with a carrier oil composed of almond, apricot, and jojoba oils significantly decreased pain and depression levels when compared to the control group.
Essential oil lingo and what to look for
When shopping for essential oils, particularly online, you could be combing through hundreds of websites. This can be quite overwhelming.
You might see terms like ‘therapeutic grade', ‘organic', or ‘100% pure'. What does this mean?
The truth is, there is no governing body that regulates the quality and purity of essential oils. Therefore, companies can really say whatever they want in their marketing. So, you need to be very careful.
When you see ‘100% pure', this means that this is a single oil and not a blend of oils. It also means that there are no added chemicals, fragrances, or fillers. Just straight oil.
Even if a product is pure, the composition of the oil varies based on the time of day, season, geographic location, the method of distillation, climate, etc. Every step affects the overall quality of the product. Finding a reputable company is key.
When you see ‘therapeutic grade', know that there is no industry standard or third-party institution to verify these claims. It does not distinguish between a high-quality product and a low-quality product. It is really just a marketing term so don't get hung up on this label.
When deciding where to buy your essential oils from, do your research first.
Check online for company reviews to see what customers have to say. If the company has poor customer service or posts fake reviews, steer clear.
Also, consider reaching out to the company ask them a few questions about the quality of their product.
- where and how plants are grown before oil is extracted
- distillation process
- lab test results to prove purity
If you receive a shady answer or have a bad gut feeling, move on.
A natural approach
Using essential oils can be overwhelming when first starting out. There is a lot of information out there and it can be difficult to differentiate the good from the bad. Make sure to do your research.
Essential oils can have therapeutic benefits for a number of different ailments including pain. They also help to relax us when we're stressed out or can help rev up our energy.
There is a lot of room for experimenting and finding out what you like. Let us know what oil or oil blends have helped your pain.
Check out this video for more tips and tricks.
Meet the Author
Shannon is a nurse practitioner with an array of clinical experience. She is particularly passionate about health promotion and disease prevention. When she's not nurse practitioner-ing or writing, she enjoys reading, cooking, and yoga. You can check out her blog at https://shannonthenp.com.