While many alternative medicine therapy fads may be fleeting, the use of essential oils and aromatherapy has remained a staple in the world of natural medicine.
Techniques using essential oils have been tried by many rheumatoid arthritis patients as well as people with other painful ailments.
However, the effectiveness of oils and aromatherapy has not been entirely proven.
And officials at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) haven’t yet seen fit to give them their stamp of approval.
Some Patients Swear by Them
Many patients don’t seem to mind that essential oils aren’t FDA approved or widely accepted in traditional medicine.
“Using essential oils has helped me tremendously. I diffuse them and also apply topically to certain joints and muscles when they’re sore. The FDA doesn't have to approve them for me to use them because they work, at least for me, and a lot of the usual stuff simply doesn’t,” said Jules McCarthy of Pennsylvania, who has had rheumatoid arthritis (RA) for 10 years.
“Aromatherapy helps me to relax,” added Clara Smith of Texas, who also has RA. “Having chronic pain is stressful so if that’s all it does for me, I’ll take it. My doctors are fine with me using my oils. They’ve never caused me any harm and I intend to keep using them and sharing my positive experience with others.”
“Anything’s worth a try. I’d try anything to help with my joint pain,” said Tim Burke of Pennsylvania, who has two forms of arthritis.
Do They Work?
Many health coaches and wellness consultants who sell essential oils and other related products insist the oils work wonders.
However, those who sell the oils have to be careful with wording and compliance when it comes to marketing their products.
That’s because the FDA has still not approved essential oils as a treatment option for any condition.
In addition, most of the people who independently sell these oils are not licensed medical doctors, although a license isn’t required in the United States to practice general aromatherapy.
The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) suggests that the use of essential oils and aromatherapy be practiced by a professional who has some kind of license, such as massage, chiropractic, nutrition, or psychotherapy.
In other countries, such as India, the incorporation of certain oils into traditional medical treatments is not uncommon.
Despite the lack of a stamp of approval in the United States, some doctors, chiropractors, physical therapists, and health coaches are beginning to recognize the potential benefit of using essential oils topically and aromatically.
According to the Arthritis Foundation’s official website, Dr. Mehmet Oz said, “Aromatherapy is effective because it works directly on the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center.”
“This has important consequences because the thinking part of the brain can’t inhibit the effects of the scent, meaning you feel them instantaneously,” added Oz, who is director of Columbia University Medical Center’s Integrative Medicine Center in New York.
There are other uses that some patients could find beneficial, but the efficacy depends on the type of oil.
For example, curcumin and turmeric oils have been studied by medical science professionals and are found to have anti-inflammatory properties. Turmeric oil is popular in supplement or pure oil form.
Frankincense may also have similar anti-inflammatory properties. A component of frankincense called Boswellia serrata may provide some relief from arthritic pain.
A study published in the Arthritis Research and Therapymedical journal found that extracts of this component improved joint health and reduced pain in patients within one week. The researchers of this double-blind study concluded that frankincense extract, often used in frankincense essential oil, could prevent joint degeneration.
Some Doctors Are Hesitant
But not all doctors are on board.
In a published op-ed article on essential oils, Dr. Justin Smith wrote: “I have extensively studied essential oils personally and am confident that, at this time, I cannot recommend them for my patients until further studies come out regarding efficacy and safety in children.”
Dr. Mike Patrick, an emergency medicine physician at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, agrees, for the most part.
On the hospital’s blog, 700 Children’s, he wrote, “As an aromatic food supplement, essential oils are a playground for the nose and probably safe in small quantities. But if money is tight or symptoms severe, you’re better off pursuing the known. Why? Because there are plenty of good reasons approved and regulated medicine is mainstream.”
Most research remains inconclusive on the effect of aromatherapy. Among the reasons is the fact that essential oils have been used for thousands of years and therefore don’t fit the traditional research model.
According to the Mayo Clinic, patients should consult with a doctor before trying these techniques, but they do say that essential oils are shown to be safe when used as directed and have shown improved quality of life for people with chronic conditions.