Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can cause pain and swelling in the knees and other joints. Essential oils, such as frankincense and eucalyptus, may help alleviate some symptoms. However, they are not an alternative to conventional RA treatments.

In this article we will discuss essential oils for rheumatoid arthritis, including what the research says, how to use them, and the potential risks of using essential oils.

Although research suggests essential oils may have some health benefits, it is important to remember that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not monitor or regulate the purity or quality of these oils. A person should talk with a healthcare professional before using essential oils and research the quality of a particular brand’s products. It is also important to always do a patch test before trying a new essential oil.

A woman smelling her wrist after applying essential oils for rheumatoid arthritis.Share on Pinterest

Essential oils are highly concentrated liquids that come from plants. These liquids contain compounds that provide the “essence” of the plant’s flavor or odor, hence the term “essential oil.” Manufacturers use pressure or steam to extract the oils from the plant’s blossoms, leaves, roots, or bark.

Few large-scale studies involving humans have determined the effects of essential oils on rheumatoid arthritis (RA) exclusively. However, most experts consider essential oils safe to use for RA, as long as a person uses them according to instructions, and does not use them in place of conventional treatments.

Below are six of the best essential oils for RA symptoms, alongside scientific evidence supporting their effectiveness.

1. Eucalyptus

Eucalyptus contains several compounds that may help to reduce inflammation, swelling, and pain. A 2013 study examined its effects in people who underwent total knee replacement surgery.

Participants who inhaled preparations of eucalyptus essential oil at 30-minute intervals for 3 days in a row reported less pain and had lower blood pressure readings compared to those who inhaled an almond oil control.

A person can inhale eucalyptus oil by adding a few drops to a basin of hot water and inhaling the steam.

2. Frankincense

Practitioners of traditional medicine have used frankincense or “Boswellia” essential oil for thousands of years to treat a variety of ailments, including chronic pain and inflammation.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, the acids in frankincense have anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. They may also help to reduce autoimmune responses and prevent cartilage damage.

A person can inhale frankincense or apply it to the skin. Always safely dilute essential oils in a carrier oil before applying them topically.

3. Lavender

Lavender essential oil contains active substances that may have beneficial effects on the body, including anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and cell-regenerating effects.

A 2016 study investigated the effects of aromatherapy massage on RA of the knee. In this study, the essential oil was a 5% mixture combining lavender, juniper, ylang-ylang, and rosemary essential oils in the ratio of 3:3:2:2 in 100 ml of coconut carrier oil. Participants received a 30-minute massage once a week for 6 weeks.

Pain and fatigue scores significantly decreased in the aromatherapy massage group compared to a control group that did not receive any intervention.

The study authors concluded that the aromatherapy massage could help to manage pain and fatigue in people with RA, although it is unclear whether the massage or essential oils themselves were beneficial.

A person can inhale lavender essential oil, or dilute it in a carrier oil to add to a bath.

4. Ginger

Ginger has a longstanding reputation for reducing chronic inflammation due to the anti-inflammatory effects of gingerols, which are compounds in the ginger plant. Ginger essential oil may contain other compounds that help to ease the symptoms of RA, too.

A 2016 study investigated the anti-inflammatory effects of ginger essential oil in rat models of RA. Rats that had received injections of the oil exhibited reduced rates of chronic joint inflammation. However, further studies involving human participants are necessary to confirm the effects.

People can try diluting ginger essential oil in a safe amount of carrier oil and applying it to the joints.

5. Turmeric essential oil

An older study from 2010 funded in part by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health found that turmeric essential oil reduced joint inflammation in rats. Research is underway to determine the effects on people.

A 2016 review reports that turmeric extract appears to reduce symptoms of arthritis, though more research is necessary to support this claim.

6. Basil

Basil contains a wide variety of potentially therapeutic compounds. Examples include 1.8-cineole, which has anti-inflammatory effects, and linalool, which research has shown to reduce swelling in mice and rats.

An older 2013 study found that rats with induced arthritis showed reduced joint swelling after receiving a daily oral dose of 150–300 mg per kilogram of body weight of basil essential oil extract. The authors concluded that the basil oil had delivered significant anti-inflammatory effects.

The rats in this study also had less edema and a lower risk of cartilage damage. Edema refers to a buildup of fluid and is associated with inflammation.

Doctors generally do not recommend taking essential oils internally, so a person should try applying basil topically in a carrier oil instead.

Applying concentrated, undiluted essential oils directly to the skin can cause adverse effects, such as severe skin irritation. To avoid irritation, a person must first mix the essential oil with a carrier oil. Examples of carrier oils include:

A person should also perform a patch test before trying a new essential oil mixture. This will involve applying a small amount of the mixture to the underside of the forearm or the bend of the elbow and waiting to see if signs of skin irritation develop. If the skin shows signs of irritation, a person should avoid using the mixture.

Blending essential oils together may allow a person to enhance their effects. There are many potential blends a person could try using the essential oils listed above, but in the 2016 study on the impact of aromatherapy massage on RA, the researchers used:

  • lavender
  • juniper
  • ylang-ylang
  • rosemary

The ratios of these oils was 3:3:2:2 respectively, diluted in 100 ml of coconut oil.

Methods for using essential oils include:

  • placing a few drops into hot water and inhaling the steam
  • using a diffuser, which dilutes essential oils in water and releases a scented mist
  • mixing essential oils into bath salts or oil and adding some to a bath
  • diluting essential oils in a carrier oil and massaging the mixture into sore, stiff, or painful joints

A person should speak with a doctor before using essential oils to alleviate symptoms of RA. Some essential oils can be dangerous if a person uses them incorrectly. They may also interact dangerously with other medications or supplements a person is taking.

It is also possible for people to have reactions to essential oils. Some side effects may include:

Essential oils are not suitable for use around pets, children, or people who are pregnant or nursing. Additionally, a person should never replace their prescription RA medications with essential oils or other complementary therapies.

Without proper treatment, RA can lead to serious and permanent complications, such as bone and cartilage damage.

Some people use essential oils for rheumatoid arthritis as a complementary therapy to help alleviate certain symptoms, such as pain and inflammation. According to some studies, eucalyptus, frankincense, and lavender essential oil show promise for this, but more research is necessary.

A person can inhale essential oils in hot water, or mix them with a carrier oil and massage them into the skin over the affected joint. Some carrier oils to consider include coconut oil, sweet almond oil, and jojoba oil.

Essential oils can be safe if a person uses them correctly, but sometimes, people have reactions to them. Possible side effects include headaches, skin rashes, and increased skin photosensitivity.

A person should notify their doctor before using essential oils, as some may interact dangerously with other medications or supplements a person is taking.