Can Essential Oils Help Pain?

Woman holding her head in pain

Since I started studying aromatherapy, I always take an essential oil kit when I go away. It’s like having a travelling pharmacy except each oil is good for a variety of symptoms. Two years ago, I was out camping when I put my back out. I had helped my husband move a picnic table the day before and the next day I squatted and twisted to move a dog dish and that’s when it happened. For those of you who haven’t experienced this, it’s a very sharp pain that incapacitates you. And there was no one around. After several minutes I was able to stand up but even with my high tolerance for pain it was unbearable. I painfully made my way up the steps to the trailer to check my essential oil supplies. I had a few options but decided on lavender and eucalyptus. It certainly wasn’t magic, but it definitely took the edge off. A day or two later, I called my dear sister, who’s a physiotherapist (and used to treating me virtually in emergencies) for advice. Between the stretch she gave me and the oil blend I made it through the week.

But is there any scientific evidence on pain relief with essential oils? It turns out that there is quite a bit!
This meta-analysis (a statistical analysis that examines the results of multiple scientific studies) from 2016 found aromatherapy had a significant effect in reducing pain and that it was better at treating pain from physical damage (i.e., sports injury, dental procedure, arthritis) and acute (sudden onset) pain than inflammatory or chronic pain, and most effective in treating postoperative, obstetrical and gynecological pain. These studies included ginger, lavender, orange, eucalyptus, rosemary, peppermint, rose, clary sage and marjoram. Aromatherapy expert, Robert Tisserand, summarizes this analysis in a diagram here.

A randomized clinical trial (subjects were randomly chosen) tested the effects of orange oil on the pain of emergency patients with broken limbs and found pain decreased significantly in the experimental group compared to the control group. 
A systematic review (a literature review that collects, appraises and produces findings, similar to a meta-analysis without the statistics) found that aromatherapy reduced labour pain in most of the included studies. Most of these studies used lavender and in various ways: massage, inhalation, acupressure, foot bath and compression. Other oils that were effective included rose, chamomile, peppermint, frankincense and clove.
A randomized controlled study (subjects are randomly assigned to receive a treatment or to the control group) assessed the effectiveness of aromatherapy on neck pain. Using a blend of marjoram, black pepper, lavender and peppermint, the experimental group had improved pain tolerance and improved motion.

​A double-blind crossover study (neither the participants or the experimenters know who is receiving which treatment and then the participants are switched over to the alternative treatment) tested the topical use of geranium on those who had neuralgia (nerve pain) after a bout of shingles. The study found a significant reduction in pain and that it was dose dependent.
A randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial (participants are randomly assigned to receive the treatment or a treatment with no therapeutic value) studied the effects of aromatherapy on menstrual cramps in college students. The treatment was an abdominal massage with diluted lavender, clary sage and rose. The placebo group received an abdominal massage without the essential oils. The study found that menstrual cramps were significantly lowered in the treatment group.
A double-blind placebo-controlled study on the effectiveness of massage with ginger and orange essential oils for moderate to severe knee pain among the elderly found that physical function and pain improved in the experimental group.
A controlled clinical trial looked at the effects of aromatherapy hand massage on pain in patients with terminal cancer using a blend of bergamot, lavender and frankincense. The experimental group showed a significant reduction of pain.
randomized controlled clinical trial studied the effects of lavender aromatherapy massage on pain in patients with osteoarthritis in the knee. Pain severity dropped in the experimental group compared to the placebo and control groups.
Okay, I’m going to end this here, so you don’t get neck pain from reading it! If you have any questions please feel free to post them here or contact me.

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