Modern technological advances enable humans to settle and build communities in any terrain or region. However, historically, human dwellings have been at places surrounded by diverse flora and fauna. It served several practical purposes, with the ready availability of food being the primary consideration. Over time, through years of coexistence with nature, humans discovered several other uses of plants and trees. They also developed the means to extract essential oils from plants, opening a pandora’s box of uses, such as making fragrances or perfumes, cosmetics and medicines.
Different cultures around the world developed different ways of extracting and using essential oils. Though the aromatic ones were believed to have been used as a major component for perfumes and medicines by ancient Egyptians as far back as 4500 BC, the first recorded use of essential oils was between 3000 and 2000 BC in Chinese and Indian medicine. Aromatherapy, which gained popularity in the 20th and 21st centuries, is the modern iteration of this ancient science. Today, it includes using essential oils for pain relief and other therapeutic benefits.
What are essential oils?
“Essential oils are highly concentrated plant extracts containing volatile compounds,” explains Dr Nutan Pakhare, an Ayurvedic doctor and founder of AYG (Ayurveda, Yoga and Garbhasanskar) Academy, Mumbai. Depending upon the properties, the whole plant or some of its parts can be used for essential oil extraction. The extraction method also influences the chemical composition of essential oils, thus altering their properties.
“Different parts of the plants, like flowers, leaves, bark and roots can be used for extraction,” adds Dr Pakhare. “So, the technique includes processing and refining of essential oils so the specific chemical compounds are retained in the extract.” Moreover, knowing the concentration of each compound in the plant extract makes it easier to administer the appropriate dose of essential oil.
Therapeutic properties of essential oils
Essential oils having pleasant fragrances contain certain hydrocarbons such as alcohol, esters, ethers, aldehydes, oxides, phenols, ketones and terpenes. These not only influence their aroma but also their properties. Moreover, essential oils have several properties of pharmacological interest. They can be anti-inflammatory, anticarcinogenic, antimicrobial or antioxidant in nature. They have also been used in treating anxiety.
“If the root cause of pain is inflammation, then the anti-inflammatory properties of certain essential oils are important to treat pain. For pain stemming from other sources, such as a headache, those with a light fragrance that promote relaxation and relieve pain can be used,” explains Dr Pakhare.
Using essential oils to relieve pain
Research shows that different types of pain can be managed with essential oils. This includes aches in body parts such as the neck, lower back and knee, or that caused by labour, post-operative or post-cesarean section pain, pediatric pain and even chronic pain in the elderly. Headaches and even inflammatory disorders such as arthritis, which involve both muscle and bone tissues, can be treated with essential oils. These are administered by inhalation or applied on the skin surface — they are rarely ingested.
“In the case of stress-related pain or when you want to relax, the inhalation of the essential oils can have an influence on your nervous system. It sends a signal to the brain, causing it to release neurotransmitters like serotonin and endorphin, which make you feel less pain,” says Dr Pakhare.
Essential oils that exhibit anti-inflammatory properties contain inflammation-reducing compounds which penetrate through the skin when applied and easily reduce inflammation and thus reduce the pain as well.
Points to consider before using essential oils
Though using essential oils can lead to relaxation and provide pain relief, there are certain points one should know before using them.
- It’s important to dilute essential oils with carrier oils before using them for easier penetration through the skin.
- One should do a patch test to check whether it causes an allergic reaction.
- Little children, pregnant women and people with certain health conditions should avoid it.
- The best way to store it is by keeping it in a glass bottle so that the potency of essential oils is not lost.
Since different essential oils have different compositions, using essential oils for pain relief must be done under medical guidance.
- Essential oils are plant extracts containing volatile compounds, which provide characteristic features such as a pleasing aroma and properties that are beneficial in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.
- They have antimicrobial, anticarcinogenic and anti-inflammatory properties, that help in avoiding infections, quicker wound healing and reducing pain.
- Several types of pain, including that associated with stress, headaches, muscle tension and even chronic pain can be treated with essential oils.