6 Tips for Treating a Headache with Aromatherapy

depression (2)Growing up, I was plagued with headaches. My pain was so severe that, at one point, I missed 11 straight days of third grade—yes, third grade—because I could barely get out of bed.

I went to specialists, tried some sort of “drops” that didn’t help in the slightest, and was finally put on naproxen sodium—at an adult dosage—which I continued to take well into my early twenties. When I was around 20, I developed auras along with my headaches (I once went partially blind in one eye for a short period) and the pain became so bad I couldn’t drive, eat, or sometimes even walk very well. I was finally diagnosed with migraines and given a low-level antidepressant that made me feel bad all the time, rather than the few times a month I had a headache. When I later had a slew of gastrointestinal issues at age 23 that required an endoscopy, enteroscopy, and colonoscopy, my doctor said the long-time use of naproxen sodium was probably what caused the majority of the damage in my stomach. (My issues have since cleared up, thankfully.)

So, you can see why understanding how to treat headaches is important to me.

And I’m guessing it’s important to you, too: It’s estimated that 47 percent of the population has a headache disorder. That means that almost half of the world’s population has had at least one headache in the past year. And 10 percent of people reported migraines, debilitating headaches that can include symptoms like nausea, visual auras and dizziness. The most common condition is a tension-type headache (TTH), which is associated with stress or musculoskeletal issues in the neck.

And what’s the common treatment? Pop a pill.

Ibuprofen, acetaminophen and naproxen sodium are some of the medicines of choice. They work quickly and can dull the pain of a headache. But they don’t fix the cause—they’re simply masking symptoms. Not only that, but they can cause gastrointestinal issues and other side effects, as I so painfully found out.

But there is another option: aromatherapy. The key is the interaction of the olfactory system, brain and body. Aromatherapy treats the cause and helps relieve symptoms.

Yet just walk down an aromatherapy aisle and you may feel overwhelmed at the vast selection—enough to make your aching head spin. To help get the best information on aromatherapy, I interviewed Cathy Smith, a wellness associate at my local Boise Co-op, who has had extensive training in aromatherapy for headaches.

While I’m opting out of essential oils since I’m pregnant, I wanted to share this information with you (and save it for later, so I can use it with post-pregnancy headaches). Here are Cathy’s six tips for treating a headache with aromatherapy.

#1 Know your oil options

There’s not one magic oil for all headaches. But there are specific oil options to try, depending on your headache cause. Use the table below to guide you in selecting an oil.

Headache cause/type Aromatherapy oils
Stress Lavender, chamomile
Sinuses, virus (such as flu) Eucalyptus
Migraine, tension headache, cluster headache Peppermint
General headache Ginger (has a warming effect)
Fear, grief Bach flower
Anxiety Bach flower, chamomile
Depression Chamomile
Muscle pain Wintergreen
Emotional pain, deep bruising (such as from an accident) Helichrysum

#2 Try different ways of using oils

The options for aromatherapy use vary as widely as the oils:

  • On the skin
  • In a steamy shower
  • In bath water
  • In hands, cupped so you can breathe the oil in
  • On a cotton ball or wash cloth held below the nose; this works well for lavender, for example
  • Through a capsule; eucalyptus, for example, can benefit the body internally
  • In a spray bottle; mix vodka—for emulsion, water won’t work—and your essential oil(s) of choice and spritz the room you’re in

#3 Try the migraine mix

Cathy offers a special aromatherapy recipe for migraine sufferers:

  • Mix 5 drops lavender and 5 drops ginger in 110 degree water
  • Soak hands in the mixture for three minutes or more, repeat as necessary

#4 Follow safety precautions

Oils impact how the body functions, which means that people with certain medical conditions and women who are pregnant should talk to their doctors before using essential oils. During pregnancy, it’s best to stick with oils from flowers, such as lavender, chamomile and roses; peppermint and eucalyptus can be more stimulating and should be avoided during pregnancy.

#5 Know which oils you can use “neat”

The term “neat” refers to oil that hasn’t been diluted. But some essential oils can be irritating to the skin when used neat, so be sure to follow directions for the specific oil you purchase. Tea tree, for example, can have a drying effect. Eucalyptus is also known to irritate the skin.

You can dilute irritating oils like eucalyptus with another oil like argan. Just use this simple formula: One drop of eucalyptus oil to one tablespoon of argan oil creates a safe 1 percent solution; to increase the amount, use six drops of eucalyptus oil with one ounce of argan.

#6 Keep trying

Since your olfactory system, brain and body is unique, it may take some time to find the right oil or oil blend for your specific symptoms. Keep trying. Cathy suggests using different oils until one works.

Have you used aromatherapy to treat a headache? What oil or combination of oils worked well for you?

[1] http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs277/en/

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  1. 1

    sarah says

    Thank you for the other ideas of different EO’s to use for other types of headaches and good information! The peppermint essential oil has really helped with my headaches. I recently learned from an herbalist I know that 1 DROP (!) of an essential oil can equal 10-50 CUPS (!) of that herb in tea or 20-100 droppersful of the same herb in a tincture. She was also talking about how important it is to know which ones to use neat and which ones to be sure and dilute. They are powerful! I need to look more into how to use them safely and still benefit from them because they are so potent.

  2. 4

    Cecily says

    I’m a little confused by the recommendation for Bach flower in the chart above. These are not essential oils at all. They’re flower essences, which are taken internally, and supposedly work along the same lines as homeopathic medicines.

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