In the world of homeopathic medicine, using the aroma of plant extracts (such as essential oils) to treat symptoms is called aromatherapy. Now, depending on the person, aromatherapy can be hit or miss.
“Some people with migraines develop smell sensitivity and even pleasant odors can become unpleasant,” says Noah Rosen, MD, Director of Northwell Health’s Headache Center in Great Neck, New York. “However, for other people, scents have a very relaxing effect on them … I do think there can be a very individual effect.”
In general, it’s best to speak your MD before using essential oils — especially if you have sensitive skin. Essential oils can irritate the skin or trigger an allergic reaction. You should never apply undiluted essential oils directly to skin.
If you are interested in trying them out, and your doctor gives you the “O.K.”, you may be wondering which oil is best to treat your pain. There are so many different oils to choose from and different ones may help depending on the kind of headache you have, according to Mindy Green, an aromatherapist and herbalist. Here are her go-to essential oils and application methods for the most common types of head pain:
Tension Headache: Peppermint
Feel like a clamp is tightening around your head? You’ve hit tension headache territory. Try hitting back with peppermint oil. Some research shows applying diluted peppermint oil solution may reduced the intensity of tension-type headaches after 15 minutes. Add 10 drops peppermint oil to 1-ounce carrier oil, like jojoba or coconut, and massage into the neck and shoulders, Green says.
Stress Headache: Lavender, Frankincense, Neroli, or Citrus
We all know that a stressful day can cause our heads to pound and scientific research backs that up. Inhaling essential oils can help to relieve that stress and foster calm. But which one to choose? It depends on what you find personally relaxing, but Green likes lavender, frankincense, neroli, and citrus oils for unwinding.
“If an aroma is perceived as pleasant, we take a deeper breath; that in itself helps to slow the heart, align the nervous system, and help us to relax,” says Green. Pick an essential oil you love and inhale 1-2 drops from a tissue, add to an essential oil diffuser, or apply 1-2 drops to your palms with a carrier oil, rub together gently, and inhale deeply.
There’s a lot to love about lavender. Inhaling lavender essential oil for 15 minutes helped relieve migraine pain more than a placebo, according to a 2012 study published in European Neurology. Try inhaling straight from the bottle at the first sign of a headache or use it in a face massage, says Green: Add 1 drop lavender to a teaspoon of unscented face cream, massaging the jaw, temples, and forehead.
Hormonal Headache: Geranium
Fluctuating hormonal levels — especially a dip in estrogen right before and during your period — is associated with more frequent headaches, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you suspect PMS is behind your headache, Green suggests using geranium on the abdomen (add 1 drop to a teaspoon of carrier oil and massage in a circular motion) or in the bath (add 5-8 drops to a tablespoon of carrier oil and add to the tub).
Dehydration Headache: Peppermint, Orange, or Tangerine
Dehydration can cause migraines and headaches, so it’s best to begin drinking water to replenish your body. In the meantime, a cold compress spiked with essential oils may help, says Green. Add 1-2 drops peppermint, orange, or tangerine to a small bowl of cold water. Dip a face cloth, ring it out, and put it across your forehead while you chill out.
No-Name Headache: Custom Blend
“Headaches are shape shifters because they can be caused by so many things,” says Green, who uses a blend of rosemary, peppermint, and lavender as her general headache go-to. “A blend gives you a wider range of constituents that may help address a wider range of unknown problems.” Add the blend to a diffuser or make your own headache roller ball by adding 1 drop each of the essential oils to a 10 ml roller ball and fill with a carrier oil (like jojoba or sweet almond); shake well and store in a cool, dark place.