The Truth About Aromatherapy & Pain Relief

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Aromatherapy has been around for nearly 6,000 years -- but is it really effective in pain management? According to Prevention, it can be if used correctly and with the proper tools.

An article published in the journal's May 2021 Issue argues that essential oils can be beneficial not only in relieving stress but also as a natural fix for some painful symptoms.

"If you consider how the smell of fresh-cut grass or peeled orange can immediately lift your mood, you may not be surprised to learn that certain aromas can calm nerves and even alleviate pain."

Here's what you need to know.

What Is Aromatherapy?

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According to the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, aromatherapy is a practice that "uses natural plant extracts, such as essential oils, hydrosols, and carrier oils, in a variety of ways to heal the body, mind, and spirit."

While aromatherapy is not a cure for diseases, it can definitely be used as a complementary therapy to support conventional treatment of various conditions. It uses essential oils extracted from plants and distilled through a number of different processes, depending on their use and method of delivery.

"The highly concentrated oils may be inhaled directly or indirectly or applied to the skin through massage, lotions, or bath salts," shows the Mayo Clinic. "Some essential oil manufacturers have oils that can be taken internally [under capsule form], but research on the safety and efficacy of this method is extremely limited."

Aromatherapy & Pain Relief

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Some of the attested benefits of aromatherapy include reducing stress, anxiety, depression, nausea, as well as improving circulatory problems, sleep, and fatigue.

In terms of pain relief, studies have shown that essential oils can help alleviate headaches, muscle spasms, menstrual pain, and other types of aches.

The way aromatherapy works is by stimulating a chemical reaction in the body as scent travels from the olfactory nerves or through the bloodstream to the brain. There, it sends a message through the nervous system to the limbic system -- the part of the brain that controls emotions and the perception of symptoms such as pain and anxiety.

According to Prevention, aromatherapy is also used clinically and has been shown to improve dental anxiety and pain and to ease pain associated with intravenous catheter insertion in a pair of studies.

Essential Oils For Painful Symptoms & How To Use Them

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Quite a handful of essential oils are recommended in pain management and can be safely used at home. Top of the list is lavender essential oil, which has been proven effective against headaches, arthritis, menstrual, muscle, and post-operative pain.

Research also indicated that peppermint essential oil can help ease headaches as well as gastrointestinal, muscle, and neck pain.

Other essential oils that can be used to manage pain are black pepper (muscular aches and pains), rosemary (muscle spasms), clove (toothache), yarrow (joint inflammation), chamomile, and mandarin (they enhance the relaxation response and lower pain perception).

"These essential oils are absorbed through different routes: inhalation, topical absorption, or, in some cases, ingestion [under capsule or pill form]," notes Prevention.

"Inhalation is the fastest and safest way of getting oils into the body."

Can Aromatherapy Have Side Effects?

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One way to safely use aromatherapy at home is with a diffuser, a machine that releases particles of essential oil into the air. Another way to go is a pre-filled inhaler (or sniffer). Essential oils can also be mixed into body lotion or massage oil, or even added to your bathwater to reap the benefits of aromatherapy.

However, take note to always dilute essential oils with a carrier oil before applying them to the skin -- use a few drops of essential oil to an ounce of carrier oil.

While the inhalation method has been shown to be safe when used as directed, topical application of essential oils can have side effects in some cases. These can include allergic reactions, skin irritation, and sun sensitivity.

Likewise, take note to never ingest essential oils directly as they can be toxic, and to avoid using them if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medications and treatments that they could interact with.