Aromatherapy/Essential Oils for Chronic Pain

Chronic pain affects an estimated 90 million Americans. Its causes can stem from any number of medical conditions or as a result of an injury. Some people suffer even when no specific physical cause can be found. Traditional pain medications often serve the symptoms—but with serious side effects on the long-term basis, during which chronic pain tends to persist.

Aromatherapy using essential oils can provide an alternative to prescription medications. Aromatherapy is a form of alternative medicine that uses as its basis certain essential oils (also known as volatile oils), which are derived from plants. Essential oils are at least 50 times more concentrated than the herbs that provide them, with one drop of essential oil representing one ounce of the plant. Aromatherapy generally administers these oils through one of three basic methods: massage, added to the bath, and heated to release scents into the air.

Why Use Aromatherapy for Chronic Pain?

The long-term use of traditional pain medications is problematic. Many such medications have side effects that might not be desirable to the individual suffering chronic pain and can add discomfort. Aromatherapy, whether administered topically or through inhalation, can help eliminate the need for medication or enable a reduction of use.

When used appropriately, with the oils used in the correct amounts, no harmful effects are likely to occur, with the exception of possible hypersensitivity to certain fragrances or an allergic reaction when an oil is massaged into the skin.

How Can Aromatherapy Help Chronic Pain?

The smell receptors in the nose respond to the scents of the essential oils, sending chemical messages through the nervous system to the brain’s limbic system—the part of the brain involved in memory and emotions. Aromatherapy’s essential oils from aromatic plants possess a vitality that can affect the human body in a number of positive ways.

Chronic pain can be relieved, or at least relaxed, through the use of aromatherapy. The scents encourage the brain to produce signals to relax. In the instance of cancer patients, aromatherapy studies have shown that symptoms such as nausea, pain, blood pressure, pulse, and respiratory rates have all been relaxed in response to the use of essential oils, especially in massage.

The use of essential oils in aromatherapy has the effect of killing pathogenic bacteria, but will leave the favorable bacteria (intestinal flora) intact. Bacteria do not develop resistance to essential oils as they have been demonstrated to do with traditional antibiotic drugs.

A benefit of aromatherapy treatment is that the oils can be diluted in carrier oil, such as grapeseed oil, and specific areas can be treated. The oils do not have to be carried through the entire body in order to be effective—massaging the oils into a specific area that requires treatment will be all that is necessary. In some cases, administering the oils through inhalation or bath will be successful.

Aromatherapy uses only about five percent of essential oils produced, and the ten basic essential oils and their properties’ uses (including relief of pain) are:

  • Lavender—first aid, antiviral and antibacterial, antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic
  • Chamomile—anti-inflammatory, antiallergenic, digestive, relaxant, antidepressant
  • Marjoram—antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic
  • Rosemary—stimulates and improves circulation, relieves pain, decongestant
  • Tea tree—anti-fungal, anti-yeast, antibacterial
  • Cypress—astringent, stimulates circulation, antiseptic, astringent
  • Peppermint—digestive, clears sinuses, antiseptic, decongestant, stimulant
  • Eucalyptus—decongestant, antiviral, antibacterial, stimulant
  • Bergamot—antidepressant, anti-parasitic, anti-inflammatory
  • Geranium—balancing to mind and body, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory

Essential oils that help relax muscles and decrease inflammation are especially effective for chronic pain conditions.

What is Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain is a neurological disorder. In some people, it can signify pain lasting longer than six months following an injury. Chronic pain can exist for any reason. It can be moderate to severe, and linger for weeks, months, or years. Several kinds of chronic pain are known, including central pain; chronic regional pain syndrome—known also as reflex sympathetic dystrophy; and peripheral neuropathy—often a side effect of diabetic conditions.

Chronic pain signals commonly originate in the spinal cord or the peripheral nerves as pain from the body’s extremities and other parts of the body are carried to the spinal cord. It has also been discovered scientifically that the brain receives pain signals from the spinal cord and also experiences changes in neuronal connections that might signify a permanent strengthening of its reactions to the signals.

What Causes Chronic Pain?

Conditions that might lead to chronic pain include arthritis, cancer, and ear infection. In some instances, chronic pain will be present even with no known cause or injury. Chronic pain can affect any part of the body. Common complaints include headache, low back pain, cancer, arthritis, neurogenic pain—resulting from damage to the peripheral nerves or central nervous system itself, and psychogenic pain—pain with no specifically known physical cause.

When the cause is not obvious, several factors might include conditions such as fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, or altered electrical and chemical nerve signals. This can result in chronic pain long after an injury has healed. A serious infection also can be followed by chronic pain even once the infection is healed.

Additional Resources

"Alternative Cancer Treatments: 11 alternative treatments worth a try." The Mayo Clinic.

"Aromatherapy and Essential Oils." National Cancer Institute.

Chronic Pain: How to Get Relief.”

"Chronic Pain: When no physical cause can be found." The Mayo Clinic.

Therapeutic Uses in Aromatherapy.”

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