Essential Oils for Headaches: What Oils to Use and How to Use Them

Headaches are one of the most common ailments of our time, afflicting the nervous system and prevalent among people of all ages, gender, races, income brackets, and geographical location. A headache is characterized by recurrent pain in any region of the head, often extending to the neck.

A report by the World Health Organization (WHO) states that almost half of all adults globally experience a headache in any given year.

A headache can be a sign of stress or emotional distress, or it can result from a medical disorder, such as high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression. It can be quite a mood-kill and can have a debilitating effect on your school activities or work and your overall quality of life.

Types of Headaches and Their Causes

1. Primary Headaches

A primary headache is a direct fallout of overactivity or problems with the pain-sensitive structures in your head and is not rooted in any underlying health condition.

The chemical activity in your brain, the nerves or blood vessels surrounding your skull, or the muscles of your head and neck (or some combination of these factors) can play a role in primary headaches.

Some people are genetically predisposed to developing this problem.

The most common primary headaches are:

  • Tension headaches are the most common type of primary headaches that people get from time to time, either due to lack of sleep, stress, hot and humid weather, or very noisy kids.[4] The causes can be endless. More than 70 percent of the general population experiences occasional tension headaches, according to the WHO.
  • Migraine headaches are most common in people between the ages of 35 and 45 and usually begin around puberty, according to the WHO. Women, people suffering from PTSD, and those with a family history of migraines are at an increased risk. Although migraines may be linked to certain conditions afflicting the nervous system, they are often triggered by environmental factors such as chemical exposure, skipped meals, food irritants, hormonal fluctuations, and disrupted sleep.
  • Cluster headaches occur due to a neurological condition. Like migraines, they are characterized by pain on one side of the head and especially around the eye, although the pain associated with cluster headaches is more intense and debilitating. They are recurrent in nature, disruptive of routine activities, and often more severe at nighttime.

2. Secondary Headaches

A secondary headache is generally symptomatic of a disease that can activate the pain emerging from the sensitive nerves of the head. There are a number of health conditions of varying severity that can trigger secondary headaches. These include:

  • Sinus headaches are a terrible by-product of a sinus infection or an allergic reaction characterized by deeply concentrated pain in the nose bridge, forehead, and cheekbones
  • Arterial tears (carotid or vertebral dissections)
  • A blood clot (venous thrombosis) within the brain – separate from stroke
  • Brain aneurysm (a bulge in an artery in your brain)
  • Brain arteriovenous malformation (AVM) – an abnormal formation of brain blood vessels
  • Brain tumor
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Chiari malformation (a structural problem at the base of your skull)
  • Concussion
  • Dehydration
  • Dental problems
  • Ear infection (middle ear)
  • Encephalitis (brain inflammation)
  • Giant cell arteritis (inflammation of the lining of the arteries)
  • Glaucoma (acute angle closure glaucoma)
  • Hangovers
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Influenza (flu) and other febrile (fever) illnesses
  • Intracranial hematoma
  • Medications to treat other disorders
  • Meningitis
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Excessive dependence on pain medication
  • Panic attacks and panic disorder
  • Post-concussion syndrome
  • Pressure from tight headgear, such as a helmet or goggles
  • Pseudotumor cerebri
  • Stroke
  • Toxoplasmosis
  • Trigeminal neuralgia (as well as other neuralgias, all involving irritation of certain nerves connecting the face and brain)
  • Hormonal headaches occur when a woman is about to begin her cycle or is already menstruating

Some additional factors that make one susceptible to headaches include:

  • Consumption of alcohol, particularly red wine
  • Certain foods, such as processed meats that contain nitrates, pickles, and aged cheese
  • Erratic sleep patterns or inadequate sleep
  • Poor posture
  • Skipped meals or staying hungry for too long
  • Stress
  • Withdrawal of caffeine
  • Exposure to bright lights
  • Alterations in the weather or atmospheric pressure

Headache Symptoms

  • The annoying pain associated with tension headaches can extend to your eyes, neck, lower back, and other muscles in the surrounding regions.
  • Cluster headaches are associated with symptoms such as nasal congestion and watering and swelling of the eyes.
  • Migraine headaches are characterized by moderate to severe throbbing pain on one side of the head, often accompanied by symptoms including nausea, vomiting, and heightened sensitivity to bright lights, sounds, and distinct smells.

Other general symptoms that accompany headaches include:

  • Pain that may range from pulsating or throbbing to dull and aching, on one or both sides of the head
  • Feeling of tightness or pressure across the forehead, extending to the sides or back of the head
  • Stiffness in the neck and shoulders
  • Sore scalp
  • Confusion and lightheadedness
  • Blurry vision
  • Difficulty speaking

How to Backent Headaches

  • Do not skip meals or go without eating for long periods.
  • In the case of migraine patients, keep track of potential triggers and try your best to avoid them.
  • Include moderate exercise in your daily routine to keep your serotonin levels up.
  • Maintain optimal fluid intake and keep yourself hydrated. Preferably, cut down on your caffeine consumption as it has a diuretic effect and can aggravate your headache.
  • Get adequate sleep, and maintain a steady sleep cycle.
  • Get your personal and professional life in order by simplifying your schedule and sticking to it. This will go a long way in saving you from undue stress, which is a common headache trigger.
  • Alternative techniques for stress management and reduction such as yoga, tai chi, and meditation can also prove beneficial.
  • Keep yourself from becoming overly dependent on prescription drugs to manage pain. Excessive use can increase the frequency and severity of your headaches.

Treatment Options to Alleviate Headaches

The course of treatment for your headache problem depends upon the various determinants, such as the type, cause, and frequency of headaches. Treatment of severe or chronic cases might call for the need for medications, electronic medical tools, stress management, counseling, etc. Your doctor will check your symptoms and chalk out the appropriate treatment strategy depending upon the underlying cause. This is especially true for secondary headaches, as they will only resolve once the underlying medical problem is treated. As for primary headaches, over-the-counter medications should suffice to provide relief.

Even though painkillers are widely recognized as a quick fix for headaches and more and more people resort to their use at the slightest inconvenience, one should remember that these drugs come with a host of side effects that can be detrimental to your health in the long run.

When to See a Doctor

Although a headache is generally not considered to be life threatening, in rare cases, it can be indicative of an extremely grave medical condition, such as a stroke, meningitis, or brain tumor. Thus, one should look out for the following indicators, which are telltale signs of a serious headache that merits prompt medical attention:

  • A blinding headache of unprecedented intensity that occurs out of the blue
  • Unabating and progressively deteriorating pain
  • A headache arising in the wake of a severe head injury
  • Headaches triggered suddenly by coughing, laughing, sneezing, changes in posture, or physical exertion
  • Symptoms that may be suggestive of a disruption in the brain or the nervous system, such as prolonged lethargy, slurred speech, confusion, memory loss, and sleepiness
  • Additional symptoms that can be a worrying sign, including high temperature (fever), a stiff neck, a rash, jaw pain while chewing, compromised vision, tenderness in the scalp, and severe pain and redness in one of your eyes

Getting the help of your healthcare provider becomes indispensable if you experience headaches that:

  • Show increased frequency of recurrence
  • Are unusually intense
  • Continue to worsen or fail to subside with appropriate use of over-the-counter drugs
  • Wear you down so much that the pain ends up disrupting your professional and personal life and sleep pattern and keeps you from participating in normal everyday activities

Relieve Mild Headaches at Home

While headache disorders may require medical attention (especially if symptoms are extremely severe), it is possible to treat them at home by working a little magic with volatile plant extracts known as essential oils.

Essential oils are all-natural antidotes, capable of kissing your headaches goodbye without the nasty side effects associated with traditional painkillers. Furthermore, the therapeutic goodness of these oils helps to relax and rejuvenate your entire body. This holistic healing engendered by essential oils, in turn, works to keep stress and other social and psychological headache triggers in check.

Here are the best essential oils to use to get relief from a headache.

1. Stress-Relieving Lavender Essential Oil

Lavender possesses terrific stress-relieving, analgesic (pain-relieving), and therapeutic properties, according to a 2013 study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

The study further notes that it also manages the level of serotonin, a pain-regulating neurotransmitter, and helps to maintain it within the optimum range. People who suffer from migraines and other types of headaches usually have a low serotonin level.

This essential oil is especially effective in treating headaches associated with neurological disorders, such as depression and anxiety, and stress disorders. Lavender has been identified as a potent relaxing and sedative agent in such disorders.

Aromatherapy using lavender essential oil is also highly effective in treating migraines, according to a 2012 study published in European Neurology. In the study, 47 patients with migraine were divided into two groups. One group was instructed to sniff lavender essential oil for 15 minutes, whereas the other group was asked to sniff paraffin (liquid wax) for the same amount of time.

The patients were instructed to write down the effect of the treatment every 30 minutes for a total of 2 hours.

After 2 hours, the first group reported a 74 percent improvement in their pain and fewer incidences of a headache than the control group.

Note: Lavender may prove effective for some people but not for others. Furthermore, anecdotal evidence suggests that lavender essential oil is more effective in the initial stages of pain rather than the later stages, forcing you to resort to medication. Thus, you are best advised to use lavender at the first sign of migraine trouble, instead of waiting for it to worsen.

2. Refreshing Peppermint Essential Oil

Peppermint oil is one of those refreshing aromatic oils that smells like a crisp summer breeze and reminds you of fresh lemonade, popsicles, and cool beach waves. Just a whiff of peppermint essential oil can invigorate the senses, calm your nerves, and take you to a better place mentally.

When topically applied, it triggers a tingling, cool sensation on the skin, further relaxing your muscles and nerves, promoting blood circulation, and relieving any pain that may have been caused by heat-induced nerve contraction.

Similarly, topical application of peppermint oil to the temples and forehead during a headache episode reduces pain sensitivity and relaxes the muscles, according to a 2005 study published in Functional Neurology.

It has a similar effect when applied on the neck; it helps alleviate the muscle tension emanating from a headache that may have extended downward.

A peppermint oil and ethanol preparation, as well as a peppermint oil and acetaminophen preparation, was significantly effective in reducing pain intensity in patients with tension-type headaches, according to a 2007 study published in the American Family Physician.

3. Potent Eucalyptus Essential Oil

Eucalyptus essential oil is more commonly known for its antibacterial properties and its effectiveness in relieving symptoms of respiratory illnesses, particularly chest, lung, and nasal congestion. Thus, it is a popular treatment for cold and bronchitis.

This particular variety of essential oil is effective against sinus headaches, which are caused by inflammation of the sinuses.

In addition to being a potent analgesic or pain-relieving agent, eucalyptus essential oil works to relieve muscle stress and induce mental relaxation.

Although there is still a dearth of research-backed evidence for a direct link between the pain-relieving properties of eucalyptus essential oils and their mitigating effect on headaches, there are a number of studies that vouch for the general pain-relieving effects of eucalyptus oil.

For instance, a 2013 study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine proposes the inhalation of eucalyptus oil to capitalize on its pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effect.

Furthermore, the leaves of the eucalyptus plant were found to exhibit potent anti-inflammatory activity by a 2009 study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry.

This sheds further light on the potential effectiveness of eucalyptus essential oil in reducing headaches caused by an inflammatory response, such as a sinus headache.

4. Feverfew Essential Oil for All Types of Headaches

Although lesser known than the other essential oils in this list, feverfew essential oil is fast emerging as a treatment for headaches in all of its forms.

It is derived from Tanacetum parthenium, a shrub with white and yellow flowers resembling daisies. It is currently being studied around the world for its efficacy in treating migraines and has engendered mixed results.

It has been widely propagated that feverfew is an effective remedy for migraine headaches, in particular.

However, if a 2011 study published in Pharmacognosy Review is to be believed, feverfew can also work against cluster headaches, hormonal headaches (premenstrual and menstrual), and other varieties of headaches.

Some other studies, however, remain inconclusive and find that feverfew does not surpass any other placebo medication in treating headaches.

In a 2006 study published in Clinical Drug Investigation, a combination of feverfew and white willow (S. alba) was able to reduce the frequency of migraines, as well as the intensity of pain, in patients who took it twice daily for 12 months. The study also noted that feverfew is probably stronger in combination with white willow than it is by itself.

The debate continues to rage, but if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, one thing is certain: feverfew works like a charm in palliating the intensity of migraines in some people more than the others.

Since there is no harm in trying this mild, chemical-free, natural therapy, you should give it a go and find out for yourself if it’s a winner or not!

5. Relaxing Rosemary Essential Oil

This is one of the essential oils that present plenty of anecdotal evidence for their analgesic and relaxing properties but are not backed by enough scientific research.

Nevertheless, rosemary essential oil is widely acknowledged for relieving muscle stress and pain and stimulating blood circulation.

While its efficacy in decreasing pain in headaches and migraines has not been studied extensively, or even individually, there is some evidence supporting its inclusion as an effective combination oil in aromatherapy for headaches.

Rosemary has been traditionally used as medicine to treat headaches owing to its anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, according to a 2013 study published in Food Chemistry.

A combination of rosemary, basil, lavender, and rose essential oils significantly reduced headaches and anxiety in subjects, according to another 2010 study published in the Journal of Korean Biological Nursing Science.

Ways to Use Essential Oils for Headache Relief

Topical Application

Note: When applying any essential oil directly on your skin, you are strictly advised to mix it with a carrier oil. Undiluted, direct application could harm your skin.

Using Your Hands or Cotton Balls

  1. Pour 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) of carrier oil (preferably almond, coconut oil, or jojoba oil) into a bowl.
  2. Mix in 8 to 10 drops of your preferred essential oil.
  3. Stir the mixture with a spoon.
  4. Dip a cotton ball or your fingers into the mixture and apply it on your forehead and temples. Apply more in the areas where the pain is particularly intense. Also, rub it on your scalp and the back of your neck.

You can store the remaining mixture in a bottle for later use.

Cold Compress

  1. Mix 8 to 10 drops of your preferred essential oil in 1 cup of cold water.
  2. Soak a clean muslin or cotton cloth in the water, wring out the excess, and apply the cloth on the aching areas.
  3. Continue doing so until the cloth is warm. Repeat if necessary.

Inhalation

Essential Oil Steam

  1. Fill a medium-sized saucepan with water and bring it to a rolling boil.
  2. Take it off the heat, add 12 drops of your preferred essential oil, and mix it well.
  3. Place your face over the pan (maintaining a safe distance) and place a towel over your head such that no steam is allowed to escape.
  4. Inhale the steam of the essential oil-infused water for 10 to 15 minutes or until the water cools down.

Direct Inhalation

  1. Pop open a bottle of your preferred essential oil.
  2. Place it under your nose and sniff it for 10 to 15 minutes.
  3. Alternatively, you can apply a little bit of an essential oil and carrier oil mixture above your upper lip and sniff it.

Additional Tips

  • You are strongly advised to lie down in a dark, quiet room for 30 to 45 minutes after using one of the above application methods until your pain subsides. This is the quickest and most effective way of getting rid of a headache.
  • Stay away from the brightness and loudness of electronic devices while you are in pain. Resist the temptation to check your phone, log in to your laptop, or sit in front of the television.
  • Tie a black or dark-colored cloth over your eyes for increased relaxation and darkness.
  • Try to go to sleep for a little while after using the above application methods. A closed mind, one that’s not constantly mired with innumerable thoughts, will heal faster and better. You will wake up refreshed and, hopefully, free of pain.
  • It may prove effective to incense your pillow before going to sleep by squirting a few drops of your preferred essential oil on it using a dropper. This will help you sleep better and allow the oil to further palliate the pain even as you sleep.

Resources:

  1. Headache disorders. World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/headache-disorders. Published April 8, 2016.
  2. Rizzoli P, Mullally WJ. Headache. Plum X Metrix. https://www.amjmed.com/article/S0002-9343(17)30932-4/fulltext#s0015. Published January 2018.
  3. Baad-Hansen L, Cairns B, Ernberg M, Svensson P. Effect of systemic monosodium glutamate (MSG) on headache and pericranial muscle sensitivity. Cephalalgia. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19438927. Published January 2010.
  4. Chowdhury D. Tension type headache. Annals Indian Academy of Neurology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3444224/. Published August 2012.
  5. Nesbitt AD, Goadsby PJ. Cluster headache. Clinical Review. https://www.bmj.com/content/344/bmj.e2407. Published April 11, 2012.
  6. Kaur A, Singh A. Clinical study of headache in relation to sinusitis and its management. Journal of Medicine and Life. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3973877/. Published December 25, 2013.
  7. Witteveen H, Berg Pvan den, Vermeulen G. Treatment of menstrual migraine; multidisciplinary or mono-disciplinary approach. The Journal of Headache & Pain. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5393978/. Published April 17, 2017.
  8. Koulivand PH, Ghadiri MK, Gorji A. Lavender and the Nervous System. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3612440/. Published March 14, 2013.
  9. Sasannejad P, Saeedi M, Shoeibi A, Gorji A, Abbasi M, Foroughipour M. Lavender Essential Oil in the Treatment of Migraine Headache: A Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial. European Neurology. https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/335249. Published April 17, 2012.
  10. Termine C, Ginevra OF, D’Arrigo S, Rossi M, Lanzi G. Alternative therapies in the treatment of headache in childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Functional Neurology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15948561. Published 2005.
  11. Kligler B, Chaudary S. Peppermint Oil. American Family Physician. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2007/0401/p1027.html. Published April 1, 2007.
  12. Jun YS, Kang P, Min SS, Lee JM. Effect of Eucalyptus Oil Inhalation on Pain and Inflammatory Responses after Total Knee Replacement: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3703330/. Published June 18, 2013.
  13. Singh HP, Mittal S, Kaur S. Characterization and Antioxidant Activity of Essential Oils from Fresh and Decaying Leaves of Eucalyptus tereticornis. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry . https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf9012407. Published July 2, 2009.
  14. Pareek A, Suthar M, Rathore GS, Bansal V. Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium L.): A systematic review. Pharmacognosy Reviews. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3210009/. Published 2011.
  15. Shrivastava R, Pechadre JC, John GW. Tanacetum parthenium and Salix alba (Mig-RL) combination in migraine prophylaxis: a prospective, open-label study. Clinical Drug Investigation. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17163262. Published 2006.
  16. Yu M- H, Choi J- H, Chae I- G. Suppression of LPS-induced inflammatory activities by Rosmarinus officinalis L. Food Chemistry. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308814612013817. Published September 12, 2012.
  17. Hee CJ-, -Ja KM, -Seung H. Effects of Aromatherapy in blending oil of Basil, Lavender, Rosemary, and Rose on Headache, Anxiety and Serum Cortisol level in the Middle-Aged Women. Journal of Korean Biological Nursing Science. http://www.koreascience.or.kr/article/ArticleFullRecord.jsp?cn=GCJOBO_2010_v12n3_133. Published 2010.
  18. Levin M. Herbal Treatment of Headache. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1526-4610.2012.02234.x. Published October 2, 2012.

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Published by
Cynthia Williams, FNP-BC, Licensed Acupuncturist, Herbalist

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