Many cultures have long used herbal medicine to treat a variety of issues, including pain. Some traditional healers use essential oils for back pain. While a small body of evidence suggests they may be effective, the science is not conclusive.

According to a 2022 research paper discussing essential oils and neuropathic pain, most research on the topic has been poorly designed or used animal models. So, even studies that show promise for essential oils are not conclusive proof of their effectiveness.

There is currently no evidence that essential oils are a viable substitute for standard treatments. This absence of proof does not prove oils are ineffective, but it does mean more research is necessary.

Like any supplement or medication, essential oils can cause side effects, and research has not proven they are safer than prescription drugs.

This article explains whether essential oils can help back pain, how to use them, and the possible risks.

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.

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There is insufficient scientific evidence that essential oils help back pain.

A 2016 Cochrane review found evidence that lavender essential oil may help lower back pain. While there were no significant adverse events, the quality of evidence was only moderate. More recently, a 2022 study looked at neuropathic pain but emphasizes that most research has been low quality, relying on animal models.

Learn more about essential oils.

There is not sufficient evidence proving that essentials work to relieve pain, and researchers have also not developed clear models explaining how they might work if they do.

Essential oils contain a range of phytochemicals or plant chemicals that may have varying effects on the body. A 2022 paper highlights the possibility that these chemicals may have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that could ease pain.

No recent, well-controlled studies of animals or humans have tested the effectiveness of peppermint oil in treating back pain. Some studies have found that essential oils may facilitate relaxation and pain management, such as peppermint oil. However, further research is necessary.

Learn more about the benefits of peppermint oil.

A small group of studies have found some evidence that lavender essential oil may ease pain.

In a 2017 study, researchers tested the effects of lavender on the brains of euthanized rats. They found that it acted on glutamate NMDA receptors. This suggests it may ease anxiety and depression, both of which can trigger or worsen sensations of pain.

A 2022 paper asserts that lavender has anti-inflammatory properties and that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners use it to treat headaches.

Learn more about the benefits of lavender.

In a small 2022 study, researchers tested eucalyptus oil aromatherapy for the treatment of post-COVID syndrome, which has symptoms such as back pain. Among the 15 participants that inhaled eucalyptus oil, a pain measurement scale found back pain was reduced after the aromatherapy treatment.

Learn more about the benefits of eucalyptus oil.

Traditional herbal practitioners may use rosemary to ease pain and anxiety. A 2017 study found that the topical application of rosemary may ease musculoskeletal pain in hemodialysis patients. Hemodialysis is a procedure that filters waste and water from the blood, and pain can occur when undergoing it.

Anecdotally, some people use rosemary salves as part of massage treatment, or in aromatherapy concoctions. But no recent, well-designed research supports the use of rosemary specifically for back pain.

Learn more about the benefits of rosemary.

Ginger can produce a mild heat sensation that may mimic the effects of topical pain ointments that contain capsaicin. A 2019 paper explains that preclinical studies suggest ginger has anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety, and anti-pain benefits. However, many of these studies are old, small, or involve only nonhuman animals.

A 2020 narrative review explored prior studies assessing ginger as a treatment for chronic low back pain. In one double-blind placebo-controlled study, and one randomized controlled trial, there was weak evidence that the essential oil may help with chronic low back pain.

Learn more about the benefits of ginger.

Because essential oils are considered supplements, there is no scientific consensus about how best to use them. A person might use an essential oil as a massage oil. Doing so is safest when a person dilutes it with a carrier oil to prevent skin irritation.

These strategies can help a person safely use essential oils:

  • Start with a very low amount and gradually increase based on the body’s response.
  • If a person is taking other medication, talk with a doctor first.
  • Use a small amount of each one until a person establishes that each particular essential oil does not trigger allergies or other symptoms.

Essential oils can be dangerous and toxic if ingested. Apply them topically with a carrier oil such as coconut oil or jojoba oil.

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The benefits of using essential oils for back pain are not firmly established. Some research suggests that many essential oils, such as ginger, may be a useful complement to standard treatments, or helpful as a part of massage. And plenty of people anecdotally report improvements. But the science has not caught up to these claims.

If essential oils do work, some potential benefits include:

  • an alternative treatment for people who cannot use, or do not get relief from, medication
  • a complement to standard treatments
  • a treatment that feels more natural to people with concerns about taking medication

Researchers have not thoroughly tested the safety of essential oils. Some potential risks include:

  • avoiding standard treatments and not getting relief
  • drug interactions that may be dangerous or reduce the effects of medically necessary drugs
  • allergic reactions and skin irritation
  • adverse effects that may exacerbate underlying medical conditions, such as increasing bleeding or changing blood pressure

Essential oils show promise for treating pain, especially as a complement to standard treatments. But the scientific evidence does not conclusively support that they are safe or effective. For this reason, a person should not replace standard treatments with essential oils.

It may also be unsafe to use essential oils when taking other medications since all drugs and supplements can interact.

If a person has chronic medical conditions or uses prescription medications, they should consult a doctor before trying essential oils. But research generally does not show a high risk of significant adverse effects.