Bella Mira Essential Oil
Organic Carrier Oils
Essential Oil Information and Use
Express Order Form
Essential Oil Singles
Essential Oil Blends
Essential Oil Kits
Essential Oil Supplies
Gluten Free Living and Recipes
PAIN Relief and Information
Save Your Computer Free Protection
CD's DVD's and Books
Hormone Balance Test New
Thyroid Function Test
Internal Toxicity Test
Shopping Cart Is:
Aromatherapy for Pain Relief 3-20-08
by Bob and Rhiannon Harris and Dr. Beth Dupree DVS, MD
Managing pain remains one of the biggest challenges in medical care today, with
chronic disabling pain in particular affecting millions of people around the
world. Our experience has shown us that in many cases aromatherapy can offer a
significant way forward as either a complementary or alternative form of pain
relief for a large number of people. There are several possible reasons why this
may be so and this article aims to examine possible ways by which essential oils
and the global aromatherapy experience may help the person in pain.
Pain as a Unique Experience
To begin with, we need to remind ourselves that pain is a multidimensional
experience. Until relatively recently, pain was defined largely from a
physiological/sensory viewpoint. One of the biggest contributions of Melzack and
Wall in 1965 was to widen the understanding of pain to include somatic,
cognitive and affective aspects that are all integral and essential to the pain
experience. This acknowledgment that psychological and emotional factors also
play a key role in how pain is perceived, appraised and effectively treated is a
clear step forward.
Pain can be difficult to assess and classify. This is because the experience of
pain is unique, subjective and highly personal. It also has complex
psychological, social and spiritual aspects. As aromatherapists, we have to rely
on the client to express their experience of the pain and to respect their
One of the most important steps a therapist can make in their initial assessment
of the person in pain is to take a detailed case history. Within this context,
there may be questions pertinent to the person's pain experience. Typical
questions concerning the pain experience itself are included in Figure 1.
Typical pain questions
- Where is the pain?
- Is it localized or
- When did the pain
- Is there a past
- Is it related to
work, injury or activity?
- Are there
aggravating or precipitating factors?
- Is there a pattern
to the pain?
- Does it interfere
with normal activities?
- Is it constant,
intermittent or episodic?
- What is the pain
- What is its
- Is there associated
stiffness, swelling or inflammation?
- What helps to ease
- Are there
associated neurological symptoms?
The words the person in pain uses to describe their pain can reveal their
experiences from a sensory, cognitive and affective perspective. Words such as
'sickening', 'blinding', 'frightful', 'miserable' and 'unbearable' are commonly
used descriptors. These words have significant affective or cognitive weighting.
Words such as 'sharp', 'burning', 'shooting', 'pounding' and 'throbbing' have a
more somatic emphasis. Thus effective listening skills are essential for the
therapist in order to hear truly what the person is saying about himself or
As a holistic approach is the most effective model for working with pain
management, let us take a moment to explore further aspects of a person's unique
experience of pain
The Person in Pain
A general observation of the person in pain is that they are often 'trapped in
the moment'. As time goes by and pain continues, the concept of a future without
pain is harder to grasp and to focus on. Pain becomes the focus of their
attention. Many people feel that they are controlled by pain; it dominates every
aspect of their life.
There are many variables with regard to the perception of pain by an individual.
However, the most common factor is that of anxiety, in particular the fear of
pain or the fear of more pain. This has an impact not only on the experience of
pain but also on the person's coping strategy that is highly individual and may
be influenced by cultural and social factors as well as past experiences. A
vicious cycle (Figure 2) may quickly develop whereupon fear leads to anxiety,
which in turn increases attention and focus on the pain.
If pain persists, then instead of fear and anxiety, a sense of failure,
frustration, anger and depression may be experienced. Depression is a feature of
most chronic painful conditions. Often in this stage, the person is likely to
adopt passive coping mechanisms or avoidance behavior which in the short term
can give some relief but in the long term can perpetuate the problem.
There are intrinsic relationships between injury, pain and stress (physical or
psychological). Pain always initiates the stress response/alarm state. Any type
of stress has a profound impact on the immune system. Chronic stress is
particularly disabling. It can actually perpetuate and contribute to ongoing
chronic pain via peripheral and central nervous system mechanisms.
Sleep deprivation is another common feature of the person in pain. This is
partly due to the fact that pain creates an alarm state and thus affects arousal
and wakefulness. A lack of sleep potentiates pain.
The sensation of pain also leads to postural, behavioral and social changes. If
the person locks into a 'pain posture' and maintains this for any prolonged
period of time, biodynamic stress is placed on the musculoskeletal system,
leading to compensatory changes that may include endocrine and nervous system
changes and lead to further imbalance. Furthermore, the 'sick role' that the
person may adopt may include further behavioral and social changes that
perpetuate the problem. If a person's experience has taught them that a
particular action (e.g. a massage or a cup of tea) brings relief, their
expectation is likely to affect the end result positively.
One of the most common assumptions by the person in pain is that
activity/exercise will exacerbate or aggravate the condition. In many cases this
is a false assumption, at least in the case of chronic pain or when avoidance of
activity and movement is prolonged. Periods of inactivity can lead to a vicious
cycle (Figure 3) whereby pain creates fear and leads to avoidance behavior that
in fact increases disability and pain. Thus avoidance of activities that may
create pain may help to reduce anxiety but in fact precipitates the pain itself!
If we consider the above points as situations we frequently encounter with
persons in pain, it becomes obvious that essential oils may be able to give
positive assistance in a number of ways that can directly or indirectly affect
the pain experience.
How Aromatherapy Can Help
Generally speaking, aromatherapy has a positive role to play with regard to pain
management, both in reducing existing pain and preventing/reducing anticipated
pain. If we take the various aspects of pain (somatic, affective and cognitive)
we can summarize as follows.
Working with the Somatic Aspects of the Pain Experience
Aromatherapy can work in real, direct and practical ways to help reduce pain
perception. Figures 4 to 8 list typical essential oils used to exert the
physical effects mentioned below.
The reader is referred to the bibliography at the end of the article for
examples of research pertaining to these physical effects. Essential oils can be
* reduce inflammation (Figure 4);
* give a local anesthetic effect (Figure 5);
* create a counterirritant stimulus (Figure 6);
* establish analgesia (Figure 7);
* reduce spasm (Figure 8);
* create a sensation of cooling (essential oils such as peppermint and
* create a sensation of warmth and increase local blood flow (rubefacient
In order to exert the aforementioned effects, the essential oils need to be
applied to the skin, preferably in the locality or close to the site of the
pain. Hot or cold compresses, ointments and creams or gels containing essential
oils are the most common forms of application, with the dose and frequency of
application dependent on the type and severity of the painful condition.
If combined with massage or other physical therapy, there are additional
* Restoration or improvement in mobility;
* Short-term relief by joint mobilization;
* Increase in endorphin production;
* Activation of descending pain control systems;
* Stimulation of healing in peripheral joints;
* Sensory distraction as a form of pain relief.
Obviously the usual contraindications to massage apply in painful conditions,
such as over broken bone, severe inflammation, or infection.
Working with the Affective and Cognitive Aspects of the Pain Experience
It is in this sphere where a holistic aromatherapy treatment can be used to its
fullest potential. As the affective and cognitive aspects of the pain experience
are just as important as the physical/somatic aspects, aromatherapy goes far
beyond the physical to give sound and lasting benefits. Here the selection of
essential oils is more open to interpretation, as each client has individual
needs and preferences and the therapist has their own experiences of how
essential oils work on the mind and emotions. For example, essential oils and
the overall treatment approach can be selected for:
* inducing relaxation to override abnormal prolonged stress;
* improving disrupted sleep patterns;
* increasing motivation;
* improving mood states;
* restoring confidence;
* engaging social skills;
* providing emotional and cognitive support and counseling;
* using non-judgmental listening skills;
* encouraging a sense of control over pain;
* using a whole-person focus rather than a pain focus;
* acknowledging anxiety and fear;
* encouraging active and positive coping strategies;
* encouraging greater mobility.
Much of the above-mentioned effects are achieved through inhalation of essential
oils during treatment coupled with a more general holistic approach. The
therapist-client relationship is fundamental to supporting the person in pain.
Once the client has achieved a sense of control over their pain in conjunction
with the use of essential oils, it is often the case that merely the aroma of
the selected blend of essential oils is sufficient to instigate a cascade of
responses that include relaxation, positive affect and improved confidence.
Helping the person to live with chronic pain and encouraging them to use
positive, active coping strategies are perhaps the greatest rewards of
To further illustrate how aromatherapy can help, consider the following case
Case History - Jane - Severe Headache
Jane is a 32-year-old personal assistant who works in the city of London. She
has come for aromatherapy treatments at the suggestion of her doctor who has
been investigating her one-year history of tension-type headaches. These occur
at least once per week, usually in the evenings after work and can last all
night, disrupting sleep and leaving her tired and stressed the following day
with feelings of being unable to cope. She dislikes taking prescription
medication but does so reluctantly when the pain is severe. She describes the
pain as "blinding, pounding and unbearable" and associated with nausea. Her
other health history is unremarkable.
On questioning, she reveals that the severity of her headaches has increased in
parallel with increased workload, office changes and stress at work. Her working
hours are long and her diet and fluid intake are erratic. She takes no regular
exercise, and her social life revolves around drinking with colleagues after
Jane's aromatherapy treatment plan was twofold. Firstly, twice-weekly evening
massage sessions were arranged. These lasted one hour and were focused on her
upper body (head, neck, shoulders, back, arms and hands) in an attempt to reduce
the muscle tension in these areas that are likely to be contributing to her
headaches. The advantage of this approach is that the selection of essential
oils can include ones for her stress and anxiety as well as muscular relaxation
as the massage is also exerting psychophysiological effects. Thus the oils were
selected for their antispasmodic, analgesic, calming and uplifting actions (see
Figure 9). As Jane was involved in the oil selection process, the overall blend
was highly personalized and once blended had a pleasing fragrance. The sessions
were planned to leave her deeply relaxed and the same blend of essential oils
was deliberately used with each subsequent treatment to establish a conditioned
response, helping Jane to link the blend with a feeling of relaxation, even when
massage was not used. Jane was then encouraged to use this same blend of oils at
home and at work whenever she felt stressed.
The second approach was to help Jane directly when headaches did occur (see
Figure 10). This blend was predominantly created for its physical action in
reducing pain and given to Jane for use at home. Jane was advised to apply a
small amount of the blend directly to the forehead, neck and pressure points
just below the skull. The concentration of the formula was deliberately raised
in order to exert the desired therapeutic effect. The use of gel as opposed to
carrier oil was to enable easy penetration and not leave a greasy feel on the
skin or hair.
Following a fortnight of twice-weekly massage sessions and regular use of the
blends at home, Jane was able to reduce her appointments to weekly and then
monthly massage treatments as her frequency of headaches diminished. After the
first month of regular treatment, the blend of essential oils was altered to
suit her changing needs. When she did experience pain, the concentrated gel
blend helped to reduce its severity quickly to a manageable level, leaving her
clear headed and relaxed and without the usual accompanying nausea. The benefits
she experienced were not solely confined to her headaches; she found she also
had more energy, her quality of sleep improved and her anxiety levels reduced.
As she improved, she became more motivated to make lifestyle changes. These
* altering her office layout, especially with relation to her computer chair and
* taking regular short breaks to get fresh air;
* making healthy packed lunches and snacks;
* consciously drinking more water during the day;
* using her leisure time more constructively;
* developing assertiveness and delegation skills.
From the above it can be seen that a holistic aromatherapy approach holds much
potential for offering deep and lasting pain relief. It goes without saying that
the responsibility of the aromatherapist to work always within their sphere of
competence. When working with the person in pain, in many cases the person is
under the simultaneous care of their doctor or other health-care practitioner
(osteopath, chiropractor, etc). Close liaison between practitioners is