Many people who have to deal with the many debilitating symptoms of arthritis — pain, swelling, reduced range of motion, and stiffness — are open to trying alternative remedies to find relief beyond what their medications can offer. Indeed, research shows that people with osteoarthritis (OA), the most common type of arthritis, are more likely to use complementary treatments than those living with any other chronic condition. And just as there’s evidence supporting the use of alternative therapies like acupuncture and meditation in treating arthritis symptoms, science also shows some benefits of incorporating aromatherapy into your anti-arthritis armamentarium.
What Is Aromatherapy?
If you’re not familiar with aromatherapy, it’s the use of aromatic oils — the most concentrated extracts from flowers, herbs, trees, and other plants — to ease physical and emotional ailments. The practice has been around since ancient times. Though the term aromatherapy wasn’t coined until 1937, the Egyptians used such oils for medicinal purposes as far back as 2000 B.C. Today aromatherapy oils, known as essential oils, are incorporated in massage, added to baths, or breathed in through a nasal inhaler or diffuser.
How Aromatherapy May Help Arthritis Pain
The benefits of essential oils used to be explained as coming from the life force of a plant, which admittedly sounds a little woo-woo. The reality is that essential oils contain a slew of compounds — sometimes as many as 300 — that can have a range of effects on the body. Essential oils directly stimulate the part of the brain that influences emotions, heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, but you don’t even necessarily have to smell the oils to reap their rewards.
“The term ‘aromatherapy’ is really a misnomer,” says Barb Picciano, a registered nurse, board-certified holistic nurse, and the former director of the healing services program at the Cleveland Clinic. “The use of essential oils is called aromatherapy, but the word doesn’t cover all of the ways they work.”
For instance, when applied topically, rosemary can ease arthritis pain by helping to numb nerves; when inhaled, rosemary oil’s been shown to have a stimulatory effect on beta brainwaves that may explain its ability to make you feel more alert and energized — a plus when dealing with a chronic disease leaves you feeling drained.
When trying to manage arthritis pain, you’ll want to use something topical, says Picciano, who’s now the director of education for Natural Options School of Aromatherapy, the education arm of a company that provides essential oils to over 120 hospitals in the country. “You’re not going to affect joint pain with inhalation, but in terms of relaxation, it could be effective.”
Cautions About Using Aromatherapy for Arthritis Symptoms
As pleasant as essential oils often smell, it’s important to remember that they can be powerful. Take wintergreen, for example. “It’s a very strong oil,” says Debbie McElligott, a nurse practitioner at the Center for Wellness and Integrative Medicine at Northwell Health in Roslyn, New York.
“Many aromatherapy books say never to use it, but in small quantities — just a few drops — it can be excellent for pain relief.” The concern arises because wintergreen contains a high quantity of methyl salicylate, a chemical in the same family as aspirin, hence the moniker “liquid aspirin.”
“If someone spreads wintergreen oil all over themselves, there’s a possibility for aspirin poisoning,” says McElligott.
Since people with arthritis often take at least one medication, it’s important to study up — or better yet, consult with a certified aromatherapist — to learn about how to use aromatherapy safely and avoid any interactions with other treatments. For instance, wintergreen should be used with caution by anyone taking blood thinners.
You also need to know how to use the oils properly. Two tips: Only lavender can be used directly on skin (others need to be mixed into a carrier oil like jojoba oil or fractionated coconut oil first), and using less is more. Generally speaking, it you use too much oil you’ll get the opposite effect of what you want, says Picciano. The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy can help you find a certified aromatherapist.
Another important caveat: If you choose to use an alternative therapy to help treat arthritis pain, you need to continue working with members of your health care team. “Aromatherapy and other holistic modalities are great complements to Western medicine,” says Picciano. “Though it’s nice to have complementary things you can do to help other treatments along, you should still be doing what your physician tells you to do.” Doing otherwise can be dangerous: Studies show that people with arthritis who completely ignore traditional medicine in favor of alternative methods find that their health deteriorates at an alarming rate.
Popular Aromatherapy Picks for Arthritis
Though studies are sometimes small and not always well designed, the evidence is mounting that essential oils can be good medicine when it comes to easing symptoms of arthritis. Moreover, chronic pain often leads to other conditions, such as poor sleep, anxiety, depression, and overall reduction in quality of life — and research shows aromatherapy can be beneficial for all of these as well. Some studies have even found that arthritis patients who used aromatherapy were able to reduce their intake of painkillers while maintaining or improving their current level of comfort.
Here’s the scoop on some of the most popular essential oils used for arthritis:
Thanks to a substance called gingerol, this herb possesses potent anti-inflammatory effects. In fact, when researchers compared ginger with ibuprofen they both showed similar anti-inflammatory activity. This makes sense, since both block COX-2, the enzyme that produces chemicals that promote inflammation and pain.
Ginger has been proven effective as a pain reliever in many studies. In one that included people with OA of the knee, 95 percent of patients treated with ginger reported a reduction in pain. In another study of people with chronic knee pain, massage with ginger oil was compared to a massage only and a treatment-as-usual group. After one week, knee pain and stiffness were similar among the three groups. At the four-week follow-up, however, the aromatherapy group reported a reduction in knee pain, as well an improvement in physical function compared to the control groups.
The power of peppermint is due to menthol — it contains at least 44 percent free menthol, which produces a sensation of hot or cold that can temporarily override your ability to feel your arthritis pain.
A combination of wintergreen oil and peppermint oil is commonly used because it’s believed to give far better pain relief than either oil alone, note researchers in a 2014 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. The combination oil may potentiate the individual effects of each oil, allowing the use of lower doses of each, which is likely to produce fewer side effects.
No fragrance is more associated with good sleep than lavender. The herb contains at least two compounds, linalool and linalyl acetate, which have sedative effects. But lavender also seems to help directly with chronic joint pain. In a study of 90 patients with OA of the knee, the pain severity of the group that was given massage with lavender essential oil was immediately and significantly improved compared to the placebo groups.
You may know it best from products like Vicks VapoRub, where it acts to clear your airways. But the oil also contains compounds that act as anti-inflammatories to reduce swelling and pain. In one study on people with OA who had knee replacement surgery, inhalation of eucalyptus oil for 30 minutes on three consecutive days following surgery was effective in decreasing pain.
When Blending Aromatherapy Oils Is Better
Often times, blends of oils are found to be more effective than single oils. For instance, one of the most promising studies on the use of essential oils to treat rheumatoid arthritis was published in 2005 by Korean researchers who evaluated a specific blend containing eucalyptus, lavender, marjoram, rosemary, and peppermint essential oils in proportions of 2:1:2:1:1 on 40 patients. “Aromatherapy significantly decreased both the pain score and the depression score of the experimental group compared with the control group,” reported the researchers. Bonus: The therapy produced no side effects.
You can mix up your own version of this blend with this recipe from The Healing Power of Essential Oils by Eric Zielinski, D.C.:
Arthritis Pain-Reducing Ointment
- 14 drops eucalyptus essential oil
- 14 drops sweet marjoram essential oil
- 7 drops lavender essential oil
- 7 drops peppermint essential oil
- 7 drops rosemary essential oil
- 2 ounces almond oil
- 1 tablespoon jojoba oil
If DIY isn’t your thing, some companies sell products pre-blended for arthritis relief. For instance, Natural Options Aromatherapy offers its Arthritis Relief blend of Roman chamomile, rosemary, clove, lavender, ginger, and wintergreen in a body cream, roll-on, and bath salts.
Tips for Choosing the Best Aromatherapy Products
Use these tips to be sure you’re getting a quality product that’s right for you:
Look for pure oils. The oils should be the only ingredients listed on the label.
Let cost be your guide. It takes a great deal of work and plant material to produce a tiny amount of essential oil. For example, 60,000 rose blossoms are required to produce one ounce of rose oil. The essential oil in the lavender plant is more abundant, but it still takes 220 pounds to yield one pound of oil. If the price is really low, you may be getting an oil that’s diluted with synthetic ingredients.
Patch test. Before purchasing an oil, ask if you can try a small amount on your skin and watch for a reaction. Some oils contain high concentrations of sensitizing ingredients, such as linalool in lavender.
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