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Are Essential Oils for Muscle Pain Essentially Useless?

I very much enjoy the massage that typically accompanies them, but I have no clue if they’re doing anything for me

Early on in my relationship with my eventual father-in-law, I learned that there were certain topics of conversation you didn’t want to broach with a top-tier pediatric cardiologist, even if you were legitimately well-intentioned and curious. 

As a group of us were riding through the streets of Nassau, and I was stationed in the rear of the Lexus SUV while taking in the sights and sounds of a post-sunset Bahamian evening, a question popped into my mind of a partially medical nature. What a stroke of good fortune that my girlfriend’s highly accomplished MD father just happened to be commandeering the vehicle. “Is there any value to the old Bahamian bush medicines?” I asked him. “Can they be used to treat anything effectively?”

My question hung in the night air for a painful length of time before an answer was returned; I couldn’t help but feel that I had made a mistake in asking it. “Are you asking me — a doctor — this question?” came the reply from the driver’s seat. 

“Definitely,” I said. “I can’t think of a more appropriate person to ask.”

Perhaps understanding that I was making an appeal to his expertise, the man who would one day escort his daughter down the aisle to me seemed to loosen up somewhat. “Anything of any medicinal value from anything contained in bush medicine would have been isolated and extracted a long time ago,” he explained.

It was a perfectly rational statement, and it made perfectly logical sense. Whether their medicines are prescribed or purchased over-the-counter, drug companies regularly pour a great deal of time, energy and money into researching and developing methods of mollifying or eliminating pain and discomfort in all of its many forms. 

And so, it seems as if the basic premise behind essential oils flies in the face of this logic, at least with respect to the elimination of pain.

What are essential oils?

Far from being “essential” in the sense that they’re required or mandatory, essential oils bear their names because they’re the essences of the plants they’re extracted from, distilled down into their essence in oil form. These oily essences are then administered to users in a variety of ways, most commonly through aromatherapy. However, with respect to reaping any of the alleged benefits that are linked to the relief of muscle pain — or pain in general — these pain-relief oils are frequently diluted with water or a carrier oil and then administered topically.

Where this leaves us is with scores of people eschewing modern medical products and breakthroughs for reasons ranging from respect and admiration for nature, to disgust and hatred for a medical industry that’s often viewed as unscrupulous. Rationale and motivations aside, at the heart of the matter is whether or not essential oils actually alleviate the pain that they’re assigned to contend with.

Right! So do essential oils work?

Well, it’s not quite that simple. In this case, we need to define what you mean by “work.” When we say an essential oil “works” with respect to pain relief, we mean that it alleviates some pain symptoms. If we say that the oil alleviates pain symptoms, then we must also factor in the extent to which it treats those symptoms, how efficient it is at addressing those symptoms and how even the distribution of the oils is. Oh, and the expense of the essential oils.

Let’s begin with the claim that essential oils can administer pain relief. Several of the essential oils that are advertised to possess pain-relieving properties contain the very chemical compounds that have been extracted from them and put to use in commercial medicines. For example, eucalyptus oil contains eucalyptol, which is a proven pain reliever contained in several commercial creams, and usually mixed with other helpful ingredients. Meanwhile, peppermint oil contains the very same menthol that’s used in countless creams designed to alleviate pain symptoms, many of which are geared toward arthritis sufferers. Likewise, lavender oil contains camphor, one of the active ingredients mixed into Bengay right alongside menthol.

It sounds to me like you’re saying they work.

Not exactly. What I’m saying is that it sounds like my father-in-law is correct. The companies whose success depends on the creation of effective products that won’t result in them being bankrupted by embarrassing class-action lawsuits have already isolated the active ingredients contained in these plants, combined several of them together, and mixed them with other ingredients to minimize unintended harm.

Now we need to get to a rarely addressed element of essential oils’ engagement with muscles that’s often tossed into the equation as if it’s an inconsequential component of the administration formula. While pain-relief pills are popped into your mouth and swallowed, or topical pain creams like Aspercreme, Bengay or Vicks VapoRub are rubbed directly into the skin in a creamy, standardized form, essential oils are usually administered in ways intended to heighten the perception of relaxation. 

To that end, users of essential oils for pain relief are commonly advised to roll the oils onto their bodies with roller bottles, incorporate them into a broader massage experience or drop them into hot bath water. Why is this important? Primarily because hot bath water is a form of heat therapy that’s a practical way to alleviate pain symptoms in and of itself, and massage is also well recognized as a legitimate form of pain-relief therapy

In other words, the prescribed application methods of essential oil therapies have already stacked the deck in the favor of inducing a positive result, because the oils are typically paired with an already proven pain remedy. 

I hate to repeat myself, but again, it sounds to me like you’re saying they work.

Sorry, but they haven’t done enough to convince me that they’re capable of standing on their own merits better than the specialized applications devised by the makers of commercial medical products.

I know: I’m in the pocket of big pharma, right? Well, my bank account would suggest otherwise. And I can already hear some of you saying: Aren’t the oils more natural, and doesn’t that automatically make them better? 

Allow me to counter that question with another question: Is the most natural method of doing something always the best? After all, the active ingredient in aspirin is basically salicin, and I’ve yet to meet the person who rejects the pill form of aspirin, and prefers to achieve pain relief by sucking the salicin out of the bark of a white willow tree. 

Sure, people love nature, but not enough to French kiss a forest.