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Essential Oils: Can They Help with Migraine?

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Essential Oils: Can They Help with Migraine?

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.

What is an Essential Oil?

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.

How Are Essential Oils Used?

Aromatically

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.

Topically

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.

But Can Essential Oils Really Help a Migraine or Headache?

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:

  • Peppermint: Peppermint extract is an excellent natural medicine known for improving digestion and relieving congestion. Used on the forehead and at the temples, its long-lasting cooling effect can soothe migraine and tension headaches and relax tense muscles. Peppermint scent has also been linked with improving nausea and increasing brain cognitive functioning
  • Lavender: Research has shown that lavender oil has calming analgesic properties that can help relieve mental and emotional stress and anxiety. Its suppressing effect on the central nervous system can lead to a decrease in pain severity and potentially help reduce migraine frequency.
  • Rosemary: Applied directly to the skin, rosemary oil reduces muscle pain and improves circulation, decreasing blood pressure and lessening migraine. A recent study has also shown rosemary to be an efficient anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and anti-anxiety remedy. 
  • Chamomile: Like lavender, chamomile oil has calming properties, aiding muscle relaxation and soothing the body. This oil can be great for treating tension headaches, anxiety, and insomnia. Inhaling chamomile may help prevent migraine attacks by reducing stress, improving sleep, and alleviating pain.
  • Eucalyptus: Useful for sinus-related headaches, eucalyptus oil can work to help clear nasal passages and sinuses. Inhaling eucalyptus scent, particularly in combination with peppermint and ethanol, has been shown to relax both mind and body, which may help decrease migraine frequency.  
  • Ginger: Consuming ginger is known to help digestion and to treat nausea, a common symptom of migraine attacks. Although ginger oil is pungent, rubbing it onto temples can help with the nausea and pain of a migraine. 
  • Bergamot: Bergamot oil is extracted from a type of orange with a strong citrus scent, used to reduce pain sensation and anxiety. Bergamot oil aromatherapy may help to lessen or avoid a migraine, and also anti-inflammatory properties that are beneficial to the body.
  • Frankincense: Frankincense oil contains compounds that act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, aiding stress reduction and improving sleep, which may translate to fewer migraine attacks. A study has also shown frankincense oil to have similar properties to painkillers such as ibuprofen, without the risks associated with taking over-the-counter NSAIDs.

A Few Cautions Before Using Essential Oils

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.

Conclusion

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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Updated on
September 23, 2022
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