The Essential Guide to Essential Oils for Back Pain

Essential oils for back pain may be a viable complementary treatment—as long as you use them correctly.

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Even though they’re popular, people are often still divided when it comes to the effectiveness of essential oils for back pain. Do these plant-based oils have the power to alleviate a host of ailments? Or are they simply a placebo?

Essential oils for back pain Do essential oils for back pain work? Find out what our experts have to say.

To get the essential (heh) truth, we spoke with two medical professionals to weigh in on this topic: Ai Mukai M.D., a physiatrist board certified in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, and David Kiefer, M.D., Medical Director of the University of Wisconsin Health Integrative Health Consult Clinic and a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health. Here’s their take.

Do Essential Oils for Back Pain Work?

Dr. Kiefer defines essential oils as “chemicals that are extracted from plants.” He adds, “They are often aromatic, being small chemicals as far as chemical compounds go so that they easily enter into the air and allow us to smell them.”

When we asked both doctors for their opinions on essential oils, they agreed that they can be effective—but, it’s something that’s been difficult to prove scientifically.

“There are not a lot of studies that I can turn to in order to prove that they work,” says Dr. Kiefer. One reason is that it’s difficult to do such a study. For example, it would be difficult to have a blinded study, which is often the best way to prove something, where the people in the study didn’t know which group they’re in—one can smell the oils.”

Despite these hurdles, there are some reliable studies around essential oils. For example, one 2016 study concluded that using essential oils as aromatherapy can significantly reduce pain. Another study suggests that specifically orange oil can relieve pain. Other research has suggested that when certain oils are applied topically to the low back, such as wintergreen or peppermint, they can act as an alternative to traditional medications that may cause side effects.

Essential oils for back pain orange lavenderOrange and lavender may be particularly effective for back pain, according to some scientific evidence.

Although a lot more research must be done for essential oils to become standard of care, here’s what Dr. Mukai said when asked if essential oils work: 

“Yes,” she says, “although it depends on ‘for what.’ Does it cure cancer? No. Can it help symptoms? Yes. Some oils have anti-inflammatory properties and muscle-relaxing properties.”

Dr. Kiefer has witnessed them working first-hand, saying, “Often, my patients will report to me that the essential oils help them, and I listen to that and remember it as one type of anecdotal evidence of effectiveness.”

The bottom line? Many people who use essential oils note their efficacy, even though more study needs to be done.

When Should You Use Essential Oils for Back Pain?

There are back conditions that are appropriate for essential oils, and there are ones for which essential oils aren’t recommended.

“I would stick to treating chronic, low-level pain,” Dr. Mukai says. “If there is any numbness, weakness, bowel or bladder incontinence, or severe, incapacitating pain, you should go to the emergency room. If the pain doesn’t improve within three to five days, you should make an appointment with a doctor.”

Dr. Kiefer recommends always checking with a healthcare provider before using essential oils to “make sure there are no relevant adverse effects nor contradictions.”

“There are many severe and serious back conditions,” he says, “so it is essential to see a healthcare provider to make sure a serious condition isn’t the cause of the back pain. Many of those severe conditions shouldn’t be treated solely with essential oils, so get cleared by your healthcare provider first.”

He also believes that essential oils are only part of a larger integrative treatment plan, one that includes allopathic therapies, physical therapy, mind-body approaches, exercises, adequate sleep, and an anti-inflammatory diet.

How Do You Use Essential Oils For Back Pain?

If your doctor gives you the go-ahead to use essential oils, here’s how you can add them to your back-care routine.

Dr. Kiefer explains, “For back pain, essential oils can be used in two ways: as aromatherapy, using a diffuser to release that oil into the air, allowing it to be inhaled; or, in a salve, lotion, or cream, and massaged into the site of pain.”

You might be wondering where to begin. From his experience, Dr. Kiefer says, “I think that finding an aromatic salve or lotion with essential oils that appeals smell-wise to a patient, plus aromatherapy with a calming essential oil such as lavender, is a good start.”

Essential oils for back pain diffuserStart with a diffuser if you're new to essential oils, says Dr. Kiefer

He shares examples of oils that may alleviate back pain, saying that lavender is an excellent choice as aromatherapy; if you prefer to apply the oil topically, he advises using ginger, camphor, menthol, or rosemary.

Dr. Mukai agrees that lavender can aid in pain management when used as aromatherapy and adds that orange oil is also aromatherapeutic. As for applying an essential oil directly, she says, “The best evidence seems to be in using wintergreen or some other type of mint topically.”

It’s important to remember that chronic pain causes a host of other psychological and emotional effects including anxiety, fear, anger, and depression.  While they may be less effective at addressing the root cause of back pain, they can certainly help with the symptoms and manifestations.

What Else Do You Need to Know About Using Essential Oils?

If you choose to go the topical route, Dr. Kiefer emphasizes that the essential oil needs to be “significantly diluted,” adding, “Straight essential oils on the skin can cause a rash or other reaction.” You can dilute an essential oil with something called a carrier oil. This can include almond oil, avocado oil, or coconut oil.

Dr. Kiefer stresses that one should “never, ever ingest an essential oil.” He says, “They are extremely toxic when taken orally. If you purchase them and have small children in the house, put them somewhere safe if they don’t have a child-proof cap on them.”

He offers additional advice around topical essential oils, noting, “It’s always important to check with your healthcare provider before using any of these oils. There are adverse reactions to know about, contraindications in some cases for people with respiratory or other conditions, and they’re never appropriate for small children.”

If you’ve tried everything—including essential oils—but your back pain is stubbornly hanging around, it may be time to see a spine specialist. Find one near you today. 

Updated on: 08/19/20
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Jason M. Highsmith, MD
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