A whiff of vanilla or lavender might bring back pleasant memories of your mother’s kitchen or grandparents’ backyard. But aromatics can do more than soothe your mind. Scientific studies show that aromatherapy — inhaling or absorbing aromatic plant extracts — also may help soothe your body and relieve pain.
Aromatherapy has roots in ancient China, Egypt and other early civilizations, but the word was first coined by a French chemist in the early 1900s. Aromatherapy is becoming more popular today as a therapy to complement standard medical treatment.
Sniffing perfumes, air fresheners or scented candles isn’t aromatherapy. True aromatherapy uses extracts from the leaves, stems and other parts of aromatic herbs. These extracts, which are called essential oils, contain the essence of the herb.
“It’s not the scent that can make your joints feel better,” says wellness specialist Brenda Powell, MD. “It’s the plant chemicals — the herbal components — that you take in through your skin or nose. These are what affect your body.”
Essential oils are highly concentrated, so you only use a little at a time. They typically come in tiny bottles, which you can buy in pharmacies or health food stores.
You can use an essential oil by:
“When you rub an essential oil into your skin, you absorb it. It ends up in your bloodstream,” Dr. Powell says. “The same thing happens when you inhale the scent. Chemicals from the herb get absorbed through tissues in your nose and lungs.”
These chemicals eventually reach your limbic system — the network of nerves in your brain that controls your instincts and emotions.
“They can alter your perception of pain and potentially improve your mood,” Dr. Powell says.
Medical studies show that aromatherapy is linked with:
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Dr. Powell recommends these essential oils for easing pain:
There may be others, but these have been shown to ease joint pain in clinical studies.
“You may notice pain relief within 30 minutes, and the effect may last hours,” Dr. Powell says.
Remember that essential oils are plant oils, so beware of allergic reactions, she advises. Reactions could include wheezing, headache or skin rash. Try a small amount of the oil first, and then wait a day before trying more.
“Aromatherapy is an effective supplement to — not a replacement for — other joint pain therapies,” Dr. Powell says. “We know that human bodies have anti-inflammatory, mood-changing reactions to these plant-based chemicals. But if you truly need pain-relief medications, keep taking them.”