Physical therapy, lifestyle changes, prescription and over-the-counter medicines, and surgery are all common approaches to dealing with the symptoms of arthritis. But they’re not the only ways to find relief. Nearly 40% of Americans also turn to alternative or complementary therapies to manage their health conditions. Aromatherapy is one such therapy for arthritis self-management.
What is aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy is the use of aromatic plant extracts and essential oils for their healing properties. It is a form of therapy for the mind and body that has been used for thousands of years in many different cultures.
The practice of aromatherapy isn’t only about filling a room with a scent from a diffuser and waiting for it to do its work. The science behind the process provides insight into its healing properties. The inhalation of essential oils stimulates the part of the brain connected to smell, the olfactory system. A signal is then sent to the part of the brain that controls emotions, the limbic system. This triggers the release of hormones that make a person feel calm, relaxed, or stimulated, depending on the scent inhaled.
A more effective application of aromatherapy is thought to come from transdermal absorption through the skin. When essential oils are applied in this way, the molecules reach the bloodstream by combining with the natural oils of the skin. From here they are absorbed into the hair follicles, sweat glands, skin cells, or intercellular fluid (lipid lamellae) through osmosis over the semi-permeable membranes of the epidermis and dermis, where they eventually make their way into the blood stream through the capillaries. This allows them to start achieving results in less than 10 minutes by mildly stimulating or sedating systems within the body. Aromatherapy works more effectively than medicines taken internally because the oils have almost immediate access to the mind and body without having to pass through the stomach, where acids can dilute their effectiveness or change their chemical composition. Ingestion of essential oils is not recommended for these reasons, and also because they can accumulate in the blood stream and cells of the body and become toxic over time.
Help for arthritis
Many different essential oils can help ease the pain and inflammation of arthritis. “It depends on the particular essential oils you use, as they all have their own properties,” says aromatherapist Nadine Tavener. “The properties depend on the organic chemical components they are made up of. Linalool and linalyl acetate are two anti-inflammatory and analgesic [pain-relieving] components that are often found in high concentrations in the essential oils of plant species known to relieve arthritis and joint pain.” Linalool and linalyl acetate have also been shown to ease stress. The essential oils of lavender and bergamot have high concentrations of linalyl acetate, and more than 200 species of plants produce linalool.
See the list of essential oils below that may be beneficial for pain relief and inflammation.
The pain and loss of mobility that often accompany arthritis can trigger depression. Bergamot, lavender, lemon, German chamomile, and Roman chamomile all act as antidepressants. Vanilla has been found to induce relaxation and reduce stress, which can also help ease the mental and physical demands of arthritis.
Aromatherapy can also act as an adjunct to physical therapy by stimulating circulation within the joints, raising energy levels, managing pain, and/or controlling inflammation. The more often aromatherapy is used, the more pronounced and prolonged the benefits of physical therapy can become.
Since essential oils are absorbed into the skin so quickly, using them in massage oils is highly recommended if you are looking for speedy relief. “Aromatherapy massage is a very effective treatment where the pain is due to muscle fatigue, spasms, or tension,” says holistic aromatherapist Bernadette Brennan. “There are many essential oils that will help reduce pain in the short term and treat the muscular problem or injury in the longer term.”
The massage alone increases the circulation in the area, helps improve lymph drainage, and warms the area being massaged. This increases the rate of absorption of the essential oils used in the massage and the heat causes the essential oils to evaporate, allowing them to be inhaled. Therefore, an aromatherapy massage becomes a three-fold treatment involving massage, inhalation of essential oils, and transdermal absorption.
Aromatherapy can be integrated into your daily self-management routine as a preventative measure, before symptoms arise. “Ultimately the best treatment for any musculoskeletal problems is prevention,” Brennan says. “Regular massage with essential oils will help to prevent pain, reduce stress, improve general muscle tone, relax tight muscles, and improve your general level of well-being overall.”
You or a partner can use massage to treat problem areas, or you can seek out an aromatherapist qualified to provide an all-over body massage. The blends Brennan uses with clients who have arthritis vary depending on the key problem. “Some of the essential oils included in blends for treating arthritic conditions are lemon balm, rose, black spruce, tarragon, and jasmine,” she says. “For treating back pain, I would use lavender, while marjoram offers relief for muscle spasms, and ginger can assist with circulatory problems.”
What is the evidence?
Some of the published research that supports aromatherapy suggests that essential oils might pack just as powerful a punch as some drugs. One study conducted in South Korea that enrolled 40 people with arthritis found that the use of aromatherapy significantly reduced pain and depression in the study subjects. The blend in this study was lavender, marjoram, eucalyptus, rosemary, and peppermint in proportions of 2:1:2:1:1, mixed with almond (45%), apricot (45%), and jojoba oils (10%).
Another study, conducted in Hong Kong, that enrolled 59 older people found that massage with aromatic ginger and orange oils provided short-term relief for knee pain, more so than massage with olive oil or no massage.
Clinical research on aromatherapy is ongoing, using a variety of methods (massage, inhaled scents, etc.) for a variety of conditions and problems. A search on “aromatherapy” in www.clinicaltrials.gov, for example, reveals research investigating the possibilities for aromatherapy to relieve stress, anxiety, hot flashes, pain, and nausea in people who are undergoing certain medical procedures; people who have cancer, depression, or anxiety; and women experiencing side effects of menopause. A search on “essential AND oil” in that same website reveals many more.
However, no therapy, whether conventional or complementary, works well for everyone. To see if aromatherapy might help to relieve your pain, make you feel more relaxed, or have some other benefit, you will need to give it a try.
Giving aromatherapy a try
If you are unfamiliar with aromatherapy, you should seek help from a professional aromatherapist. Everyone is different, and people who have arthritis may be taking prescription medicines that could react poorly with certain oils. Your medical history is as important to your aromatherapist as it is to your general practitioner or any other medical doctor. That being said, it’s not hard to make essential oil blends at home. “If you are following a recipe, are fully aware of the hazards of each essential oil, never use the essential oils ‘neat’ [undiluted] unless instructed otherwise by a qualified professional, and take precautions to avoid potentially harmful side effects, then it can be safe to blend your own aromatherapy oils,” Tavener says.
Many essential oils can be acquired online, and they can also be purchased in commercial organic grocery stores such as Whole Foods. With any essential oil, purity is important, so try to avoid premade blends. If you are blending your own, you usually will need to include a carrier oil to dilute the strength of the oils to prevent possible skin allergies and reduce the chance of skin irritation. The best carrier oils for treating arthritis are sweet almond, jojoba, or evening primrose. They have anti-inflammatory properties, and jojoba and evening primrose also help to relieve pain. Once you have created your oil mixture, you can add it to your bath, massage it directly into your skin, or make a warm compress by adding a few drops of essential oil to a bowl of warm (not hot) water and soaking a towel or cloth in the blend before wringing it out and applying directly to the joints. Then simply relax. Your mind and body will take care of the rest.
Using aromatherapy safely
One of the largest hazards of aromatherapy is nondisclosure—either not discussing your desire to try aromatherapy with your doctor, or not being willing to share your personal and family history with your aromatherapist. This lack of open discourse can lead to allergic reactions, aggravated asthma, and suppressed or enhanced effects of conventional medicines. “If you are taking medication or undergoing treatment, it is best to seek consent from your doctor,” Tavener says. “This is to avoid any interactions that may negate your treatment. It is also advised that you inform your aromatherapist of any conditions or contraindications [he or she] needs to be aware of.”
Certain oils can make the skin sensitive to sunlight after treatment, and exposure to UV rays should be avoided on those days. Some oils should never be ingested due to toxicity, and some should only be used heavily diluted via a diffuser. Pregnant women should not handle essential oils at all. While some essential oils, such as Lavender, are considered safe during pregnancy, no studies have confirmed this.
Is it less expensive to grow and extract your own essential oils? No—and here’s why.
Essential oils can be truly created only via steam distillation, which requires equipment most people don’t have. A proper steam distillation kit can run from $200 to $500 or more. Furthermore, using essential oils for medicinal purposes requires the highest quality of plants and oils. Time and temperature have to be perfect to not ruin the oil—or your time and investment. In terms of investment, it can take many pounds of perfectly organically grown, harvested, and freshly dried plant material to make a single ounce of essential oil.
When you are looking for essential oils at your local market or online, the prices may seem ridiculous, considering the amount you get. However, most aromatherapy recipes call for only a few drops of these oils at a time, so small amounts will last a long time if they are stored properly in dark (amber or dark blue) glass bottles, out of direct sunlight and in cool temperatures. In the long run, it’s far more cost-effective to spend $50 for oils for fifty treatments than to try to make your own.
The essential oils that are most beneficial for pain and inflammation are listed in the table below.
• Black pepper*
• German chamomile
• Green apple
• Roman chamomile
• Bay leaf
• Cinnamon twig
• German chamomile
• Roman chamomile
*Don’t use black pepper to treat inflammatory arthritis, because it warms tissues and joints and improves circulation. This can increase inflammation.
Make these blends at home to massage into sore or inflamed joints.
Tavener’s Sore Joint Oil
• 50 milliliters Comfrey (sold at Whole Foods in 1-ounce (29.57-ml) bottles)
• 6 drops lavender
• 5 drops rosemary
• 5 drops geranium
• 2 drops lemon
• 2 drops peppermint
Massage 10 drops into the skin over the sore joint. Repeat once a day for five days.
Take two days off before the next application.
Do not use continuously for more than 10 days.
Do not apply to broken skin.
Brennan’s Anti-Inflammatory Blend
• 3 drops rosemary
• 5 drops German chamomile
• 4 drops geranium
• 4 drops yellow birch
• 30 milliliters grapeseed oil
Gently massage into the swollen area, or request a full-body massage using this blend from a trained aromatherapist.
Do not apply to broken skin.