Did you know back pain can be caused by a number of things, from a muscle strain or torn ligament to osteoarthritis or degenerative disc disease. The pain can last for a short time or for months or years.
While prescription pain medications and surgery can be useful for certain types of back pain, doctors often recommend that you first try more conservative treatments such as rest, exercise or physical therapy.
But there’s another non-invasive, non-medical option that might be worth checking out if you have acute or chronic pain—essential oils. These plant-based oils not only smell great, but can soothe inflammation and relieve pain.
Read on to find out which ones work best for pain relief and how to use them safely.
Top essential oils for pain relief
There are many different essential oils to choose from, so getting started can be a little overwhelming. So we asked aromatherapists Debra Reis
and Kathy Sadowski
about their top choices for relieving pain, both acute and chronic. Here they are:
Reis, an Ohio-based nurse practitioner specializing in holistic health and supportive therapies including essential oils, says how much pain relief essential oils offer “really depends on the person, and it also depends on how they might be using the oils.”
Also, when buying essential oils, she suggests choosing high-quality ones without synthetic ingredients, which can cause problems with long-term use.
How to use essential oils
How you use essential oils is just as important as which oils you choose. Here are the three main ways:
- Topical: Essential oils (diluted in a carrier oil) are applied to the part of the body where the pain is located. Sadowski, a Licensed Massage Therapist and Registered Aromatherapist in Flower Mound, Texas, says this can offer localized pain relief or an anti-inflammatory effect.
- Diffusion: Essential oils are added to a diffuser to fill a room with their scent, which Sadowski says can “reduce the perception of pain.” Reis says this can also offer a bit of a mood lift.
- Deep inhalation: The scent of an essential oil is inhaled deeply (without the use of a diffuser). As with diffusion, this reduces pain perception. Reis says deep inhalation can be particularly helpful for when your pain starts.
Many people use one essential oil at a time, but Reis says blending essential oils can sometimes be more effective. “One oil is great, but some people can build up a tolerance to essential oils if used by itself for too long,” says Reis. “So if you put some oils together, then your body's not going to get used to that one oil.”
Essential oils can also be used alone or alongside your other therapies. If you aren’t sure if you should be using them with your other pain treatments, Sadowski recommends asking your doctor or other health provider.
Using essential oils safely
Even though essential oils are made from plants, you should still use them carefully. Here are some tips on proper use.
Topical: Essential oils are highly concentrated, so Reis says they should be diluted with a carrier oil before applying directly to your skin. Also, she says you should avoid using an essential oil on your skin if you have already applied a prescription or over-the-counter medication.
Diffusion: Sadowski recommends diffusing essential oils only in open rooms with proper ventilation. Also, avoid diffusing in close proximity to pets, she says.
Deep inhalation: For some people with asthma, essential oils may cause a worsening of their asthma symptoms, says Reis. It is a good idea to test them slowly in the beginning.
Ingestion: Sadowski cautions against ingesting essential oils unless recommended by a professional aromatherapist. Not all essential oils can be safely ingested. “Improper internal use of essential oils can interfere with medications, burn mucus membranes or even cause toxic reactions,” she says.
Special caution: “Some essential oils may not be appropriate during pregnancy, or with young children,” says Sadowski. Also, some people are very sensitive to certain essential oils, and can develop headaches from the smell or a skin rash during topical application.
Science behind essential oils
For some people with chronic pain, the benefits of essential oils can feel like magic—but Reis says, “It’s really chemistry that gives an essential oil its action.”
As an example of this, she pointed to copaiba
, an oil that comes from trees found in South and Central America. The oil contains a compound called beta-caryophyllene, which has been shown to reduce inflammation
. “So it makes sense that copaiba would be helpful for pain,” says Reis, “because it's going to reduce inflammation.”
Sadowski pointed to a number of recent studies, which have shown the pain-reducing benefits of essential oils. In one study
, topical rose oil diluted in almond oil decreased low back pain in pregnant women, compared to women who just applied almond oil.
In another study
, researchers applied either lavender oil or baby oil to the post-surgery oxygen masks of people who had undergone weight loss surgery. Those who breathed in lavender required fewer opioids during recovery.
Seek out a professional aromatherapist
If you are using essential oils just to spruce up your work or living space, it’s fine to go it alone. But if you are dealing with acute or chronic pain, Reis recommends seeking out a professional aromatherapist.
“It can be helpful for people with chronic pain to talk to a professional aromatherapist or clinical aromatherapist,” says Reis, “and come up with a plan that will give them the most relief.”
She says a professional aromatherapist can take into account many factors related to your pain, such as:
- What kind of pain are you dealing with (muscular pain, nerve pain, visceral pain)?
- Which essential oils may be best for the type of pain you are dealing with?
- What kind of emotional effect does the pain have on you? For example, is it causing you to feel depressed, reducing your energy, or causing you to feel run down and fatigued?
The answers to these questions “can guide a plan that may be best for that person,” says Reis.
Updated: June 5, 2021