The pain and discomfort of a migraine episode spur about 1.2 million people to visit hospital emergency rooms each year. But whether an attack lasts 4 hours or 72 hours, many people with migraine will first reach for alternative (non-drug) treatment solutions, if available.
Essential oils have gained great popularity as an alternative or companion treatment to over-the-counter medications. Some, like lavender, have actually been applied for centuries.
Although anecdotal information says that essential oils may offer a measure of relief for some, solid research is still limited regarding the effectiveness of essential oils as a treatment or prevention method for migraine.
Essential oils are natural oils extracted from plant material. But are they really "essential"? Their name derives from the fact that “they were thought to represent the very essence of (a plant’s) odour and flavour,” and not because they have been proven essential to our health and well-being in any way.
The extracted oil contains the plant's “active botanical constituents” — its beneficial compounds — which are more quickly and easily absorbed by the body than their whole-plant versions. The extraction procedure can vary, depending on what part of the plant the oil comes from, and may include steam distillation, solvent extraction, or cold-compress extraction.
Essential oils carry the scent of the plant they were extracted from. One of the simplest ways to feel the benefit of these natural remedies is to inhale their essence. This can be done directly from the bottle, being careful not to let any undiluted oil contact your skin. Or you can use an essential oil diffuser or humidifier, the steam method, or dry evaporation.
To use steam, add a few drops of essential oil to a bowl of hot water. Tilt your head over the bowl, taking care to avoid steam burns to your face. Create a sort of tent by covering both your head and the bowl with a towel. Inhale for a few minutes.
For dry evaporation, add a few drops of essential oil to a piece of cotton or fabric and hold it near your nose, or use a drop or two on a shirt collar or pillowcase. You can also place a scented piece of fabric lightly over an air conditioner or air vent to help diffuse the scent across the room.
An important note: undiluted essential oils may cause irritation for some people if applied directly on the skin. First, dilute your essential oil by mixing it with a carrier oil, such as jojoba, coconut, olive, or grapefruit oil.
Then apply the diluted oil directly to the skin, targeting areas of soreness and tension such as shoulders, neck, forehead, and temples. Or rub it above the upper lip and around the nose for an aromatic effect.
It’s also easy to incorporate diluted essential oils into your daily routine by adding them to shampoo, conditioner, body wash or other beauty products. Used in a warm bath, the oil can be absorbed by your skin, while the steam from the bath can disperse its scent across the room.
Exactly how can essential oils help with migraine and headache symptoms? Different oils have different properties, some of which may help improve symptoms. Essential oils that may offer some relief are:
Essential oils are safe when used appropriately in small quantities and tend to have fewer side effects than standard medications. However, because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate essential oils' purity, quality, or safety, it is important to obtain them from reputable, well-known companies. In addition, certain essential oils are not safe for young children or pregnant women. For guidance on what essential oils are best for you, consult your medical professional or a certified aromatherapist.
Again, when using essential oils topically, always dilute the oil with a carrier oil to reduce any risk of skin burns or rashes. Even diluted, certain oils may create an irritation or allergic reaction. To prevent any serious adverse effects, perform a patch test: apply a few drops of the diluted oil onto a small section of your skin, and wait 24 to 48 hours. If you see no adverse effect, the oil should be safe for expanded use.
Lastly, inhaling essential oils also presents its risks, such as a potential allergic reaction or irritation of nasal passages. Inhaling large amounts of strong scents for long periods of time may also cause nausea, dizziness, and headaches.
Scientific evidence of the effectiveness of essential oils as a treatment for migraine is still sparse. But its surging popularity may result in more research in the near future.
Using these oils as a complement to your current migraine management treatment is unlikely to cause you harm; however, while essential oils are generally safe and do not require a prescription for purchase, careful handling is needed.
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