Aromatherapy and Its Use in Chronic Pain

by Blaire Morriss, ANP-BC, RN

If you’ve ever smelled lavender and felt calmed, or had the perfume of a freshly peeled orange brighten a moment, you’ve directly experienced the powerful effects of scent. Aromatherapy, the therapeutic use of essential oils, has experienced renewed popularity in recent years as a tool on the journey of health and wellness. While many people are familiar with aromatherapy as something that smells good, the therapeutic effects of essential oils make aromatherapy much more than just a scent. In this article we explore aromatherapy as another tool in the chronic pain toolbox.

A quick search of “aromatherapy and pain” on PubMed will return pages dedicated to trials studying the effects of aromatherapy on pain. An expert in the field, Dr. Jane Buckle, cites several factors that may be behind the pain-moderating effects of scent: the effect of essential oils on the brain, analgesic (pain-relieving) components in essential oils, and the relaxant effect aromatherapy has on the nervous system (Buckle, 2003). In essence, aromatherapy has the potential to affect us not only through our mind and emotions but also through our body. An example of this is aromatherapeutic massage, which can initiate a deep relaxation effect that not only influences pain perception, but also has the potential to improve mood. 

Traditionally a number of essential oils have been used for their analgesic effect.  Some essential oils thought to be helpful in both acute and chronic pain include: 

Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia)
Traditional use: analgesic and antispasmodic. Studied in small clinical trials for its calming and sedating activity and ability to reduce the perception of pain when inhaled.

Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
Traditional use: analgesic and antispasmodic. Studied in clinical trials for its analgesic effect on headache and ability to reduce colon spasm.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
Traditional use: analgesic and anti-inflammatory. Studied in small clinical trials for its ability to reduce pain in arthritis and knee pain.

Marjoram (Origanum majorana)
Traditional use: analgesic and antispasmodic.  Shown in small clinical trials (when used in an essential oil blend) to produce an analgesic effect in low back pain and arthritis.

Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)
Traditional use: antispasmodic and for stress-related conditions. Shown in clinical trial to produce a significant reduction in neuropathic pain.

Clary Sage (Salvia sclaria)
Traditional use: antispasmodic and relaxant. Shown in small clinical trials (when used in an essential oil blend) to reduce pain.

Black Pepper (Piper nigrum) 
Traditional use: antispasmodic and relaxant. Shown in small clinical trials to decrease arthritis pain.

Lemongrass (Cymbopogan citrates)
Traditional use: analgesic. Thought to help with muscle pain.

Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) 
Traditional use: anti-spasmodic, analgesic, and relaxant.  

Essential oils can be used in many ways, but topical application and inhalation are generally the most effective for chronic pain. For specific pain complaints such as an achy knee or sore muscles, topical applications (applying directly to skin) of essential oils may be most beneficial. Essential oils can also be applied topically by adding them to massage oil or body lotion, dispersing in an aromatic bath, or adding to a warm or cool compress. 

Inhalation is an effective method for affecting both the physical and psychological realms—by sniffing a bottle of oil, adding a drop to a cotton ball and inhaling, using a specialized aromatic inhaler (aromastick), or inhaling the steam from a bowl of hot water after adding a couple of drops of essential oil.  

The majority of essential oils are safe and do not have adverse effects when inhaled or diluted and used topically. One of the great benefits of essential oils are their relatively low risk of harm and high potential for benefit. Despite this fact, if you have hypertension, seizures, sensitive skin or are taking multiple medications, it is advisable to discuss using essential oils with a knowledgeable healthcare provider prior to use.


Sore Muscle Blend
(Results in a 5% dilution)

1 oz Organic Sweet Almond Oil
12 drops Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia)
10 drops Marjoram (Origanum majorana)
8 drops Lemongrass (Cymbopogan citratus)

Shake well and apply up to three times daily to sore muscles. Wash hands well after use

Uplifting Spritzer
(Makes a spritzer with a 2-3% dilution)

In a 1 oz metal or glass spritzer bottle add:
1 oz distilled or purified Water
12-18 drops Bergamot (Citrus Bergamia) -or- Grapefruit (Citrus paridisii)

Spray in room as needed. Avoid spraying on furniture as essential oils can discolor wood and fabrics. If sprayed on body avoid direct sunlight for 12 hours.

Blaire Morriss is a Nurse Practitioner at the Vanderbilt Center for Integrative Health and an Instructor in Clinical Nursing at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing. Blaire has completed two certification programs in Aromatherapy and has been working with essential oils for the past 15 years.  She received her graduate degree in nursing from Vanderbilt University and completed the Fellowship in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in 2012. Blaire is also a Certified Professional Health Coach. 

Pain, Stress, Anxiety, Depression, Concentration What Do They Have in Common?

By Dee Emmerson, TCC Writer

What do pain, stress, anxiety, depression, and concentration have in common?

  • Me
  • Car accident
  • Medical diagnosis
  • Exercise

Anxiety, depression, or a lack of concentration makes life more challenging. Yet people who live with chronic pain often experience all three…every day. Think how much more rewarding life could be if all these conditions, plus chronic pain, could be reduced—even eliminated—by ONE THING.

That one thing is EXERCISE. Science and thousands of people make it increasingly apparent that aerobic exercise can improve more than our physical shape. Exercise may be your brain's best medicine. According to John Ratey, Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry and author, exercise has nine benefits that slow and improve the aging process (and might we add...reduce pain?).

Aerobic exercise:

Strengthens the cardiovascular system. A strong heart and lungs reduce resting blood pressure. During exercise muscles release growth factors that promote neurogenesis and expanded vascular networks.  Blood vessels expand and blood flow increases.  

Regulates fuel. It increases levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) which regulates insulin and improves brain function. 

Reduces obesity. The physical chaos caused by obesity doesn’t just affect the cardiovascular and metabolic systems.  It increases the chances of developing dementia.  Exercise burns calories and reduces appetite—a two-for-one benefit.

Elevates our stress threshold by making proteins that fix the damage of too much cortisol, excess glucose, free radicals, and over-dominance of the nervous system’s fight-or-flight response. Ultimately, exercise delays the aging process.

Lifts your mood. Being mobile allows us to stay involved, keep up, make and keep friends.  And social connections are key to avoiding depression.  But more than that, exercise sets a body-mind sequence into action that ensures the release of neurotransmitters—the body’s very own “happy pills.”

Boosts the immune system. While stress and age depress the immune response, exercise strengthens it. Even moderate activity rallies antibodies and lymphocytes (T cells)—the immune system fighters. Prevention is a huge task for the immune system; repair is, too, when tissue is damaged or inflammation sets in.  Chronic inflammation is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and Alzheimers. Exercise allows the immune system to fix inflammation and fight disease.

Fortifies the bones. Osteoporosis can cause pain when bones break and the body’s foundation weakens. While walking aids prevention, weight training or a sport that involves running or jumping will counteract the natural loss of bone mass. Science shows that any form of exercise or strength training that stresses the bones is essential to maintaining bone health. Add calcium and vitamin D to the mix, and you will be doing your bones a big favor (Dr. Ratey suggests ten minutes of morning sun each day for the vitamin D.) How about lifting those weights on the sunny side of the patio?

Boosts motivation. Dopamine is a natural feel-good neurotransmitter released in response to heart-thumping exercise. Any activity that has a competitive component and requires some planning—golf, tennis, hiking, team sports—will strengthen the connections between dopamine neurons and keep us from becoming sedentary and solitary.

Fosters neuroplasticity. “The best way to guard against neurodegenerative diseases is to build a strong brain,” says Ratey. “Aerobic exercise accomplishes this by strengthening connections between your brain cells, creating more synapses to expand the web of connections, and spurring newly born stem cells to divide and become functional neurons in the hippocampus. Moving the body keeps the brain growing by elevating the supply of neurotrophic factors necessary for neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, which would otherwise naturally diminish with age. Contracting your muscles releases factors such as VEGF, FGF-2, and IGF-1 that make their way from the body into the brain and aid in the process. All these structural changes improve your brain’s ability to learn and remember, execute higher thought processes, and manage your emotions. The more robust the connections, the better prepared your brain will be to handle any damage it might experience.”