Prescription opioids like oxycodone, codeine, and morphine are pain medications that are often prescribed after surgery or an injury, or for chronic conditions such as pain related to cancer. While these drugs can be effective in treating moderate-to-severe pain—especially short-term (acute) pain—they also have many side effects
, including a risk of physical dependence.
Opioid dependence and withdrawal
Dependence means that you will experience symptoms of withdrawal
when you stop taking the medication. This may include restlessness or anxiety, nausea or vomiting, trouble sleeping and even increased pain.
You are less likely to become dependent on prescription opioids if you use them for less than two weeks. Most people who use opioids for a short time are able to stop taking their pain medication without any serious effects.
However, if you do become dependent on a prescription opioid, stopping the medication suddenly can cause severe symptoms. That’s why doctors recommend gradually reducing the amount of medication
you are taking until you can stop safely. This is known as “tapering.”
There is no single tapering schedule that works for everyone. You will need to work with your doctor to develop a plan
that allows you to taper off the prescription opioid while avoiding serious withdrawal symptoms or worsening of your pain.
Tapering off opioids safely
While tapering, you may still experience some symptoms of withdrawal. If you do, tell your doctor or health care team right away. They can provide you with strategies or medications to cope with withdrawal symptoms. This can help you avoid relapsing into using higher doses of opioids.
These coping strategies include moderate exercise, staying connected with your social support network, and using relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, listening to music, or mediation.
Another technique that may help you get through the withdrawal symptoms during your taper is using essential oils. These plant-based oils can be applied topically to the skin or breathed in directly or diffused in the air.
Each oil has its own scent and its own chemical properties. Research
has shown that certain essential oils can relieve pain, but some studies
also suggest that they may help relieve the symptoms of withdrawal that make tapering off opioids so difficult.
However, before you reach for your favorite essential oils, it’s important to keep in mind that tapering off opioids is something that should be done with the help of a health care team.
Essential oils for managing withdrawal symptoms
, an Ohio-based nurse practitioner specializing in holistic health and supportive therapies including essential oils, also recommends that people get help in using essential oils while tapering off opioids.
“I would be hesitant to have somebody do this on their own,” says Reis. “They should use essential oils with a professional, whether it's their physician or a professional aromatherapist.”
Teralyn Sell, PhD
, a psychotherapist based in Neenah, Wisconsin, cautions that withdrawal symptoms can be difficult to manage and may require a multi-faceted approach. Still, she says the following essential oils may help people manage withdrawal symptoms while tapering:
Other essential oils “can be used in the later stages of withdrawal to support sleep, mood, energy and even cravings,” says Sell. These include:
A certified aromatherapist can help you find essential oils that work best for you as a coping strategy for withdrawal symptoms. “Based on the client’s likes and dislikes, in combination with their emotional needs, I help them select oils that will assist them,” says Sell.
Science of essential oils
Research shows the potential of essential oils for helping people manage their withdrawal symptoms.
Studies in mice found that rose oil
and the oil from a type of mint
reduced signs of opioid withdrawal. In these studies, the mice were injected with the oil rather than smelling the scent. These were experimental studies done in mice. People should never inject essential oils into themselves or another person.
was done in people who were undergoing methadone treatment for dependence on opium, a non-prescription kind of opioid. People who took capsules of dried rosemary leaves alongside the methadone treatment had fewer withdrawal symptoms than those who underwent methadone treatment by itself.
These are preliminary studies, so more research is needed to show whether essential oils can help with withdrawal symptoms, as well as the best dose and method of application.
“Clearly more research is needed,” says Sell, “but [these studies] show that the use of essential oils alone or in combination with opiate withdrawal medication can be important for post-acute withdrawal syndrome.”
How to use essential oils
There are three main ways to use essential oils:
- Topical: Essential oils are applied directly to the skin. Because oils are highly concentrated, they need to be diluted in a carrier oil. Sell likes to apply the oils to the neck and down the spine.
- Diffusion: Essential oils are placed in a diffuser, which fills the room with the scent of the oil. “Diffusing [essential oils] within the home allows for a passive influence of emotions,” says Sell.
- Deep inhalation: The scent of an essential oil is inhaled directly from the bottle, without the use of a diffuser. Because the scent is more concentrated, this may provide a stronger effect.
Oils can be used one at a time, but Reis says combining oils may be more effective. If you use a single oil all the time, your body may get used to that one oil. Using a blend of oils can reduce the chance of this happening.
Most essential oils are safe to use when inhaled or mixed with a carrier oil for use on your skin. But some people may experience side effects such as:
- asthma attack
- allergic reaction
To reduce side effects, drink plenty of water when using essential oils. If you are taking a medication or have a serious health condition, talk to your doctor or other health care practitioner before using essential oils.
And while essential oils are plant-based, some low-quality oils may also contain synthetic ingredients, which Reis says may cause problems with long-term use.
Sell agrees: “My biggest warning or caution about essential oils is to research oil quality before using any oils. You do not want to inhale or put an oil in or or on your body that is of poor quality.”
Updated: June 5, 2021