Can Aromatherapy Help Back Pain?

Can Smell Really Cure Muscular Pain?

The Short Answer –

Aromatherapy is treatment with the use of aromatic ‘essential oils’ from natural plant extracts to improve your health.

In the case of back pain, aromatherapy can help back pain by both easing stress that would enhance your sensitivity to pain receptors and by transferring an analgesic through the skin.


The term ‘aromatherapy’ actually dates back to a French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse in his book ‘Aromathérapie’ published in 1937.

Before the development of the drugs we know today, natural plant extracts were the main ingredient in many of the primitive ‘medicines’ and still make up parts of many treatments.

As more advanced chemical solutions were found and transformed into tablet and liquid forms, so the benefits of natural oils from seeds and plants were largely forgotten.

Some countries however, still use aromatherapy as a form of front line medication for a wide range of ailments and increasingly it is coming back into focus in countries like the UK and the US, as the downsides of chemical drugs are becoming more publicised.

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How Does Aromatherapy Work

Aromatherapy hinges around the transfer of various different essential oils in to your body. It came to mean a sort of catch-all term for absorbing oils through either smell or skin absorption.

Frequently, aromatherapy can be carried out through both.

Typical applications of aromatherapy include –

  • Diffusers to spread smells (smell)
  • Aromatic spritzers (smell)
  • Inhalers (smell)
  • Bathing salts (both smell and absorption through the skin)
  • Body oils for topical absorption
  • Facial steamers (both smell and absorption through the skin)
  • Hot and cold compresses infused with various oils (both smell and absorption through the skin)
  • Clay masks (both smell and absorption through the skin)

It is important to remember that just because aromatherapy enters your body through inhalation does not mean it has not entered your blood stream.

In actual fact, through your nose is one of the most effective methods sometimes to get something in to your bloodstream and see a result fast.

Any teenager who’s tried boiling a spirit such as vodka or gin and inhaling it through the steam, will testify how quick it can get you drunk.

Potential Benefits of Aromatherapy.

Aromatherapy claims to offer many of the following general benefits –

  • Pain reduction
  • Improved Sleep
  • Stress Reduction
  • Fights Bacteria and Viruses
  • Boosts Immunity
  • Reduces Anxiety And Depression
  • Prevention Of Heart Disease
  • Can Help With Discomfort
  • Following Childbirth
  • Improves Digestion
  • Help With A Sore Throat
  • Help Treating Alzheimer’s
  • Arresting The Development Of Parkinsons

It is worth pointing out that not all of the claims above are substantiated with clinical research, but that is hardly unusual with alternative therapies – and one of the reasons I founded this site.

Essential Oils That Claim To Help Back Pain

Of course, there are literally 100’s of different essential oils, all with different qualities and proposed benefits.

In the case of aromatherapy oils that help back pain, the following 10 are typically singled out as being effective –

  • Lavender
  • Peppermint
  • Ginger
  • Rosemary
  • Sandalwood
  • Chamomile
  • Eucalyptus
  • Lemongrass
  • Wintergreen

I look at each individually and the evidence to support their inclusion on other pages, suffice to point out that the aromatherapy oils with the strongest case for reducing back pain are lavender oil and peppermint oil.

Possible Side Effects Of Aromatherapy

One of the advantages of using aromatherapy for back pain is the perceived lack of side effects. And this is still true, providing you use sensible precaution.

The chances of suffering a reaction are increased slightly if you plan to apply the aromatherapy oils atopically (as a cream/ gel direct to your skin).

These can be negated by following two simple rules…

1. Use A Carrier.

The first thing you should make sure you DON’T DO is apply an oil directly to your skin. Use a carrier oil to dilute the essential oil and aid safe carry through your skin.

2. Do A Test 1st.

The second precaution you should take is to make sure you carry out a skin patch test first. This involves testing the mixed oil on a small patch of skin first

General Precautions.

It may sound obvious, but you should never swallow essential oils and you mention to your dr what you are thinking of trying, if you are on existing medication.

In most cases, it will be fine, but you should always proceed with caution and clear it with your doctor first. This is even more important in the following circumstances –

  • Asthma
  • Hay Fever
  • Pregnancy
  • Breast Feeding
  • Epilepsy
  • Eczema
  • Psoriasis
  • Blood Pressure Problems

As discussed above, side effects with aromatherapy are unlikely, but when they do emerge are likely to include –

  • Nausea
  • Skin Irritation/ Allergic Reactions
  • Headaches
  • Rashes
  • Fits
  • Asthma Attacks

Can Aromatherapy Help Back Pain – The Facts

How quickly and for how long aromatherapy can help back pain for is still very much up for debate. Even it’s impact on back pain alone is still not clearly decided.

This is mainly because when it comes to testing the impact of aromatherapy, the scientific problems of creating a ‘fair test’ become complex. With so many different oils available which ones should you try? Furthermore, if you do have funding in place for the study, do you look at back pain, acute pain (short-term) or chronic pain?

With so many variables, it is perhaps no surprise that aromatherapy as an area, suffers from a lack of direct research.

We can however comment that there is significant evidence that aromatherapy can make some difference to pain management overall and that, by extension, aromatherapy is likely to have some effect on back pain.

Backing this proposal up is a 2016 systemic review and meta-analysis published by Lakhan et al in ‘Pain Research and Treatment’. They reviewed 12 studies looking at aromatherapy for pain management and reached the positive conclusion that

“There is a significant positive effect of aromatherapy (compared to placebo or treatments as usual controls) in reducing pain” 

The Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine (Ali et al) also published a review but this actually separated acute pain sufferers and chronic pain sufferers.

This review concluded that not only could it have an effect on both short-term and long-term pain, but interestingly also found that aromatherapy could potentially enhance

“the rate of reaction and bioavailability of drugs from the use of these essential oils.”

In other words, aromatherapy could have the added advantage of potentially make existing drugs for pain relief naturally more effective.

Finally, in terms of selecting key clinical data, I would draw your attention to the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine who tested aromatherapy on their cancer hospice patients.

The study concluded that even with terminally ill patients, aromatherapy (with 3% lavender oil) did make

“….a positive, yet small, change in blood pressure and pulse, pain, anxiety, depression, and sense of well-being”

There are plenty of small trials on the impacts of general aromatherapy, at least enough to conclude that it clearly does have some effect on general pain.

Whether this is due to stress relief, general mood improvement or an actual chemical pain reliever is as yet unclear. I will attempt to look specifically at a number of essential oils in future to see what effect, if any, each one has.

The Final Word –

Aromatherapy is perhaps one of the oldest medicines known to mankind. Exactly how effective it is remains difficult to assess because there are so many different essential oils on the market.

Furthermore, pain itself is very personal, so while aromatherapy may be the ultimate answer to pain relief for one person, it does not mean that it will have any effect whatsoever on someone else.

As a result, the clinical data that could normally answer ‘does aromatherapy help back pain?’ can only really answer that it did does offer some improvement for pain in general.

Is it worth trying for your back pain? Well, many of the trials point to aromatherapies’ ability to help you relax and provide stress relief, so it’s certainly no bad thing.

And as long as you follow the guidance and purchase safe equipment and the right aromatherapy oils, it is also perfectly safe to do – so yes if you fancy giving it a try, there is no reason to hold back.

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References Used –

 1. Shaheen E. Lakhan, Heather Sheafer and Deborah Tepper. (Dec 2016). The Effectiveness of Aromatherapy in Reducing Pain: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Pain Research and Treatment.
2. BabarAli, Naser Ali Al-Wabel, Saiba Shams, Aftab Ahamad, Shah Alam Khan, Firoz Anwar. (Aug 2015). Essential oils used in aromatherapy: A systemic review. Asian Pacific Journal Of Tropical Biomedicine.
3. Margaret Louis RN, PhD, Susan D. Kowalski, RN, PhD (Nov 2002). Use of aromatherapy with hospice patients to decrease pain, anxiety, and depression and to promote an increased sense of well-being. American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine.

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