The Smell of Relief

Essential oils like lavender and chamomile can do more than just soothe the senses. Research shows aromatherapy treatment reduces pain too.

By Jane Buckle, published January 1, 2000 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Most people consider aromatherapy, or the use of essential oils, a luxurious—but ineffective—spa treatment. In the hands of professionals, however, these soothing scents become valid therapy. Medicinal strength oils can be pharmacologically active, and some enhance the power of traditional painkillers. With chronic pain afflicting around 80 million Americans yearly, good pain management is nothing to sniff at.

Aromatherapy seems to foster deep relaxation, which has been shown to alter perceptions of pain. Essential oils also affect the brain in the hippocampus, the seat of memory, and in the amygdala, which governs emotions; inhaling oils helps us make pleasant associations, easing tension. Oils are most often applied to the skin in compresses, baths or massages; both touch and smell can be instantly therapeutic, physically and psychologically. There is a growing body of research that supports these healing actions, as I reported in the journal Alternative Therapies. For example, in a study of patients in a critical care unit, those who received massages with lavender twice a week for five weeks experienced a 50% reduction in pain; far fewer patients who got oil-free massages saw such a reduction.

What are the most soothing scents? Lavender has sedative effects comparable to drugs such as Valium. Ylang ylang, chamomile and rose have been shown to relieve pain, as have diluted oils of peppermint, eucalyptus and lemongrass. To get the full effect, be sure to use true essential oils, which are 100% pure.