Essential Oils for Pain Relief

By Shellie Enteen, RA, BA, LMBT
May 29, 2009

Essential Oils for Pain Relief

By Shellie Enteen, RA, BA, LMBT
May 29, 2009

It is safe to say that a great number of clients come to massage seeking relief from muscle and joint pain. Many will also be suffering from stress and need to relax. Others may be athletic or high-powered performers who want pain relief without becoming tired or drowsy. Essential oils can address all of these areas and add a pleasing fragrant dimension to your therapeutic work.

The most famous essential oil for pain relief and relaxation is lavender (Lavandula officinalis, L angustifolia, L vera.) Distilled from the flowering tops, the best lavender oil comes from Bulgaria, France, England, Yugoslavia and Tasmania, though it can be grown all over the world. Lavender Vera is grown in higher altitudes, which produces more esters and a finer scent. Lavender has a long list of applications for skin; because of its anti-inflammatory and cell regenerating properties, it is one of the only essential oils that can be applied neat, or undiluted, to the skin.

Lavender is also antimicrobial, anti-infectious and antiseptic, making it effective in the treatment of wounds and as a frontline defense against respiratory infection. It is tonic to the cardiovascular and digestive systems, lowers blood pressure and helps thin the blood due to the presence of coumarins. Lavender is indicated for muscle spasm, sprain, strain, cramp, contracture and rheumatic pain. It is sedative to the central nervous system and relieves headache, nervous tension, and insomnia; it can also help balance mood swings. Spiritually, lavender is said to balance the physical, astral and etheric planes.

Because of lavender's many therapeutic properties, if aromatherapists were stranded on a desert island with only one essential oil, many would hope it was lavender (it also takes the itch out of insect bites and helps heal sunburn!) But what other essential oils can be called in to use here in civilization? What should you use if your client does not want the deep relaxation or sleep-inducing effect of lavender, or if they have a tendency toward lowered metabolism or low blood pressure? What if they need to relax because they are about to take an exam, give a presentation or walk down the aisle? It's a good idea to ask the client who indicates a need to relax what their stress is about and what life circumstances may be contributing to their pain cycle. This will help you select an essence that is most appropriate for their needs. Also keep in mind that when too much lavender is used it takes on the stimulating effect of a cup of espresso, so it is good for both you and your client to vary the relaxing, pain-relieving blend.

We'll begin with an exploration of aromatherapy for pain and stress, and profile some other sedative oils. Space allows for a partial list of the properties; consult The Aromatherapy Practitioner Manual, Vols. I and II by Sylla Sheppard-Hanger, Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit by Gabriel Mojay, and others for more information on each essence.

When you want slightly less sedation but powerful pain relief, there is another type of lavender, Lavandula latifolia, L. spica, or Spike Lavender. A hybrid of lavender officinalis and latifolia, Lavandin, Lavandula-super is less expensive and often used to adulterate true lavender but is still a powerful antispasmodic well-suited for muscular, respiratory and circulatory problems, and not as a sedative for the mind.

Moving away from the lavenders altogether, other pain relieving sedative oils are chamomile (Roman, Anthemis nobilis and German, Marticaria recutita), Clary sage (Salvia sclarea), helichrysum (H. angustifolium), sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana), sandalwood (Santalum album) and vetiver (Vetiveria zizanioides).

Chamomile is a highly effective anti-inflammatory. It eases headache, neuralgia, dull muscle and low back pain, and TMJ syndrome. It relieves dysmenorrhea, PMS and stress that manifests as digestive symptoms.

Clary sage (not to be confused with sage, Salvia officinalis) is considered mildly intoxicating and euphoric, and should be used in small quantities and preferably not before an evening of cocktails, as it augments the effects of alcohol. Apart from this, the ability of Clary sage to relieve spasm, muscle ache and cramping makes it extremely useful in massage. It is a digestive aid and can be blended effectively with chamomile for tension and discomfort due to PMS and dysmennorhea.

Along with lavender, Clary sage is one of the essences chosen to ease labor. It is also associated with dreams and increased inner vision.

Helichrysum has a long history as anointing oil, but well deserves an honored place in therapeutic massage. With many of the properties of lavender, helichrysum is also indicated for bruising and burns, depression, shock and phobia, and is helpful in detoxification from drugs and nicotine. Helichrysum is said to improve the flow along the meridians and to increase spiritual awareness.

Sweet marjoram is highly sedative. It relieves pain, stiffness, sprain, spasm, neuromuscular contractions and is indicated for both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, dysmenorrhea and migraine. It has a powerful effect on the mind and emotions, relieving deep trauma, grief and heartache.

Sandalwood, well known in Ayurvedic treatment and as incense, also relieves muscle spasm and is helpful in treating sciatica and lymph congestion. It is tonic in the cardiovascular and digestive systems and relieves depression, insomnia, obsession, grief and aggression. Sandalwood opens the mind to spiritual connection and grounds this awareness in the material world.

Vetiver is interesting because it relieves arthritis, muscle ache, pain, sprain and stiffness, but increases venous circulation to help detoxification of tissues. It is said to balance the central nervous system and is grounding and revitalizing, while relieving insomnia, tension and depression.

Apart from lavender, all of the sedative essences listed are pretty potent and require few drops in a blend. The flower essences: rose, jasmine, neroli and ylang ylang, relieve anxiety and have properties that induce relaxation and pain relief.

The citrus oils: sweet orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime, tangerine and Mandarin, reduce tension and instill courage and optimism. Flower and citrus oils blend well with the other sedative oils and add their own dimensions to the therapeutic experience.

If you have a great pain relief or relaxing blend and want to share it, please contact me. In the next Aromatic Message, we'll look at some of the less sedative and stimulating oils for pain relief.