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Aromatherapy for pain in multiple sclerosis

Amanda Howarth, Clinical Nurse Specialist, Pain Management
Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, London.

Open Door - November 2003 pages 6-7

What is aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is the controlled use of essential oils to promote health and well-being. It is not a new therapy but one that has been used by many cultures for thousands of years in a variety of forms. The Egyptians, Romans and Chinese all used herbs and plants as part of their medical treatments and in France it is common for medically trained doctors to use aromatherapy oils.

The use of essential oils for pain management has become a more common and accepted form of treatment in recent years. The most frequent way of using the essential oils is through massage; however essential oils can be used in a variety of other ways such as inhalation, vaporisation, in the bath and with a compress.

Pain in MS

People with MS who experience pain often have to deal with this alongside other symptoms. Their ability to cope with their pain in these circumstances may therefore be diminished due to having to cope with other symptoms and the stress and worry about having the diagnosis of MS.

The cause of the pain experienced by people with MS may be from the plaques in the brain and spinal cord or from musculoskeletal problems resultant from the disability and reduced mobility associated with the MS. Pain due to MS is usually chronic which means it is not likely to resolve and often cannot be fully relieved, but as with any chronic pain, management strategies can be utilised to help people reduce their pain to a manageable level whilst helping them to live with it. Beliefs that nothing can be done about chronic pain in MS are unfounded and may lead people to go on experiencing pain and suffering unnecessarily. Conventional pain management techniques such as medication and nerve blocks may not be successful in people with MS, which is why complementary therapies such as aromatherapy may be beneficial.

How is it used?

There are a variety of ways that aromatherapy can be used; the most common ones are listed below.

Aromatherapy massage

Massage is thought to be of benefit for pain for a variety of reasons. It is thought to stimulate the nerve fibres that reduce the transmission of pain impulses. It is also thought to improve the circulation of blood to the muscles and to help people relax and generally feel better in themselves, all of which may help them cope with their chronic pain.


Essential oils can be inhaled through vaporisation. This can be done using oil burners now commonly available in gift shops, from a bowl of warm water in a similar way to inhaling menthol if you have a cold or directly from a tissue or handkerchief.


Many people find that using aromatherapy oils in a warm bath helps them to relax and relieve their pain. This is due to a combination of the heat from the bath and the relaxing effects of the aromatherapy oils. A few drops of essential oils should be added to a bath after if has been run. If the bath water is too hot or the oils are added when it is being run then the molecules of the essential oils are likely to be lost, as they will evaporate before you get into the bath.


A handkerchief or small square of fabric can be soaked in essential oils diluted in a bowl of water and applied directly to the painful area; this can be useful for headaches, period pain, bruises and sprains.


Some people take the essential oils internally either by adding them to drinks or using them in cooking. As some essential oils are toxic this should not be done unless under the direct supervision of a qualified aromatherapist.

How does it work?

Certain essential oils have been found to have specific analgesic (painkilling) properties. These include white birch, lavender and roman chamomile, which have high terpene and ester constituents. This combined with the effects that an aroma can have on a person's emotional response supports the use of aromatherapy for pain.

When aromatherapy oils are inhaled, molecules are transferred from the olfactory system (the sense of smell) to the limbic system (the system concerned with emotions). Emotional responses can be triggered by inhalation of essential oils that can result in the release of relaxing and sedative chemicals in the body. Alongside the analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects of the essential oils this may be beneficial to people with MS in helping both their pain and their ability to relax.

Where can I get aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is becoming more and more popular and is being used alongside conventional medicine. Some NHS hospitals and clinics are offering aromatherapy massage, as are many of the MS therapy centres around the country. If you are interested, ask your MS therapist or MS nurse if they know of any services locally. You may be able to attend an aromatherapist privately. This can either involve you seeing them at their practice, or in some instances aromatherapists will come and see you in your home. This maybe more convenient if you have difficulties in travelling; it does however usually cost more.

It is important that if you are going to see a therapist privately, you see someone who is suitably qualified. There is currently no legislation in the UK as to the training requirements for people practising as aromatherapists. If you are planning on seeing someone then check that they have a qualification that is affiliated to one of the professional aromatherapy organisations and that they have insurance cover in case you were to encounter any problems. A list of qualified practitioners who have been trained to a high standard is available from the International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists. Their contact details are listed below.

Which oils should I use?

When choosing which essential oils to use, the most important thing is to choose good quality oils. There is a wide variety of oils available to buy and their quality is usually reflected in the price. Oils will vary in price depending upon which plants they are extracted from and how easy it is to extract the oil from the plant. Don't be tempted to buy the cheapest oils as they may have chemicals added to them to boost the extraction process. Ideally you need oils that have been distilled, especially if you are going to apply them directly to the skin - after all you don't want to be rubbing in oils that are heavily laden with chemicals.

As for specific oils for pain - you want to choose oils that are anti-inflammatory and analgesic as well as ones that are good for relaxation. It is also important that you like the smell of them. Read around the subject and take advice from an aromatherapist.

The majority of essential oils that you can buy from shops should be safe but there are some that are not suitable to take, for example if you a pregnant or epileptic. Always check this out and tell the aromatherapist of any medical conditions you have and if you are taking medication.


Aromatherapy will not cure the problem or get rid of the pain. However, it may help improve some of the effects of the pain such as sleep disturbance, joint and muscle mobility, whilst helping you to relax and feel better. Achieving one or more of these things, can help people to cope better with pain on a day to day basis.

Further reading and contacts

  • Richard W Hanson, Kenneth E Gerber.
    Coping with chronic pain: a guide to patient self management.
    New York: Guilford Press; 1990. ISBN 0898625491

  • Julia Lawless.
    Encyclopedia of essential oils.
    London: HarperCollins; 2002. ISBN 0007145187

  • Shirley Price.
    Aromatherapy workbook: understanding essential oils from plant to bottle.
    London: HarperCollins; 1993. ISBN 0722526458

  • The International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists
    82 Ashby Road
    LE10 1SN
    Tel 01455 637987