Essential Oils That Could Help Your Headaches

essential oils for headache

Story at-a-glance -

  • Headaches, particularly migraine headaches, are experienced by 37 million people in the U.S., vary in duration from four to 72 hours and can be triggered by stress, hormonal changes and lack of sleep
  • Sufferers often mention throbbing temples, pain behind their eyes, sensitivity to light and sounds and nausea; some use terms like being “hit in the head by a semi”
  • Medical practitioners have used numerous ways to get rid of or at least relieve the pain of headaches, but essential oils offer real relief, often without side effects and without being addictive
  • One way to determine which type of oil is best depends on what’s causing your headaches, whether it’s lack of sleep, stress, inflammation or physical problems such as chronic sinusitis
  • There are different ways to use essential oils for relieving headaches, including a few drops in tea, applying or massaging the oil (or oils) directly to the problem spots and inhaling the steamy fragrance

By Dr. Mercola

For people who experience the worst type of headache — migraines — one might describe them as something like being forced to go on a long, impromptu bus trip during a lightning storm while wearing a helmet that’s way too tight, the stereo is set on deafening and all the energy you’ve got is spent trying to hold your stomach together. Migraine headaches result from specific changes in the brain, and the pain almost always focuses itself on one side of your head, causing a “pounding” sensation that gets worse with physical exertion.

However, sometimes it hits both sides of your head and may involve sensitivity to light and/or sound, eye pain and nausea so severe that vomiting is part of the package. Migraines are experienced by 37 million people in the U.S. annually1 — roughly 1 in 7 Americans — which vary in duration from four to 72 hours and can be triggered by stress, hormonal changes and lack of sleep.

They’re the main reason why people visit emergency clinics, and most often are experienced by women of childbearing age.2 The Hearty Soul3 relates a number of other triggers that many might not consider:

Monosodium glutamate (MSG)

Chocolate

Stress

Dehydration

Smoking

Birth control pills

Magnesium deficiency

Meats with nitrates (bacon or lunch meat)

Peanut butter

Wine

Medications

Dairy products

Whether the migraine excursion is taken occasionally or frequently, the pain is bad enough that any cure is deemed worth looking into: cold compresses, hot compresses, head massages, body massages. There are numerous over-the-counter and prescription drugs available, but these aren’t always without side effects.

Migraines: ‘Debilitating,’ ‘Like a Vice,’ ‘Soul Crushing’

To call a migraine a “bad headache” is a gross understatement. Some headache sufferers might tell you they’re impossible to define in a truly meaningful way — just that they’re awful. Huffington Post4 asked several people to describe the sensations they experience either before and/or during a migraine:

  • “It’s like having your head compressed by a 2-ton brick while someone hits your temple with a hammer at random intervals.”
  • “Like a vice around my head, with stabbing behind my ears and pressure behind my eyes. Pull the shades, lie down, don’t move.”
  • “Like being hit in the head by a semi. Or having your head compressed by thousands of cubic feet of water.”
  • “When I’m in the grip of a really bad one — one of those terrible, soul-crushing ones that comes around once a year or so — I almost always think, ‘There’s nothing I wouldn’t give up to make this go away right now.’”
  • “Like you are trying to give birth through your forehead.”

People describing symptoms often talk about their throbbing temples, pain behind their eyes, sensitivity to light and sounds and ongoing nausea. More than a few reference things like jackhammers and icepicks. Some mention auras of flickering light just before being slammed with the pain.

Understandably, migraines often lead to insomnia, and sleeplessness causes profound fatigue, which exacerbates the frequency and severity of migraines in a vicious circle. But Migraine.com5 notes that there are different types of headaches. A study of nearly 4,000 people enabled researchers to break the most common symptoms down into percentages:6

Throbbing, pulsating pain — 85 percent

Pain on one side — 59 percent

Light sensitivity — 80 percent

Blurred vision — 44 percent

Sound sensitivity — 76 percent

Auras — 36 percent

Nausea — 73 percent

Vomiting — 29 percent

Essential Oils to the Rescue

But what if the most effective relief came from something natural, extracted from powerful plant compounds instead of pain medications? I’m talking about essential oils, which have been used in ancient Egyptian, Chinese and East Indian cultures for around 6,000 years.7

Keep in mind that before applying essential oils topically, you should dilute them first with a safe and mild carrier oil, like coconut oil, olive oil, almond or jojoba oil. Essential oils have made a remarkable surge in popularity in the last several decades, proven not just anecdotally but in clinical trials to:

Ease pain

Relieve nausea

Relax your muscles

Improve sleep

Lower inflammation

Reduce stress

There are different ways to use essential oils for relieving headaches, including a few drops in tea, applying or massaging the oil (or oils) directly to the problem spots and inhaling the fragrance. One thing to always remember regarding essential oils is to avoid using them on your skin (or anyone else’s) undiluted. AromaWeb explains:

“Using a 2 percent essential oil dilution is generally considered a safe guideline for topical application of essential oils on adults when an essential oil does not have a more restricted dermal recommendation … For children or elderly, cut the dilution in half. With children, use only essential oils regarded as safe for children.”8

Reducing the frequency and severity of migraines has been achieved by continuous use over days, weeks and months. Essential oils have proved to have antibiotic, antiviral and antibacterial properties and some reports have suggested them as useful for Alzheimer’s disease, heart problems, cancer and labor pain.9

As for synthetic substances created for aromatherapy, the study noted that using actual plant oils was found to be superior, especially since synthetic fragrances often contain such irritants as solvents and propellants.10 Here’s a list of five of the most effective essential oils for relieving varied symptoms of migraines.

Peppermint Essential Oil

Having already made a name for itself among migraine sufferers, peppermint oil contains menthol to do double duty: relieve pain and relax your muscles. A collaborative study11 in Philadelphia found that applying a topical gel with 6 percent menthol “significantly” decreased pain intensity for patients after two hours.

A review published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine noted the merits of aromatherapy using essential oils from the roots, bark, stems, leaves, flowers and fruits of the peppermint plant for a number of maladies, including swollen joints, depression, indigestion, insomnia, muscular pain, respiratory problems, skin ailments and “urine-associated complications,” as well as headaches. According to the study:

“Inhalation and the external application of these oils for the treatment of mental and physical balance are the very basics of aromatherapy … to relieve stress, rejuvenate and regenerate … Olfactory nerves from nose to the brain are the site of action …”12

To mix a topical application, dilute two or three drops of peppermint oil with one or two drops of coconut oil to ease the nausea sometimes associated with migraines. Rub the oil on the back of your neck, forehead and shoulders, but a “double whammy” of effectiveness may come from diffusing a few drops of the oil for aromatherapy.

Peppermint is a good example of an essential oil that can be used in a number of ways for greater effect, The Hearty Soul13 notes. You can add five to 15 drops to a warm bath for a soak, and meanwhile, sip on peppermint tea.

Afterward, apply a diluted solution to your temples, the back of your neck below your skull and the bottoms of your feet. There are potential peppermint oil side effects in individuals with a sensitivity; one is possible sleep interference, for people taking antacids or with gall bladder problems, and in breast-feeding women, decreased milk production, to name a few.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) adds something that should always be in the forefront when using essential oils, including peppermint:

“Like other essential oils, peppermint oil is highly concentrated. When the undiluted essential oil is used for health purposes, only a few drops are used. Side effects of applying peppermint oil to the skin can include skin rashes and irritation. Peppermint oil should not be applied to the face or chest of infants or young children because serious side effects may occur if they inhale the menthol in the oil.”14

Lavender Essential Oil

Lavender oil also helps with the pain of migraines, and it’s one that tackles the inflammation exacerbating it, causing the head-splitting “hammer on the skull” sensation. Part of the mechanism is its ability to dilate pressurized blood vessels. Lavender also improves sleep and reduces stress, which are the two main triggers of migraine attacks. A 2012 study15 published in European Neurology in 2012 notes this oil’s use as a sedative, antimicrobial and wound healing accelerator, among other things.

Reduced frequency and severity of migraines was reported by study subjects in a trial after using lavender for three months, according to a 2016 study.16 The researchers observed that among the 129 headache attacks in the course of the study, 92 “responded entirely or partially to lavender,” a significantly higher percentage compared to the participants in the placebo-controlled group.

The study concludes by saying that inhalation of lavender essential oil “may be an effective and safe treatment modality in acute management of migraine headaches.”

In another study featured in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2013, researchers conjectured that if lavender’s “alleged curative properties” ranged from successful treatment of insect bites, parasitic infections and spasms, it might also be an effective therapy for neurological disorders.

A review of lavender’s efficacy for pain was noted in the study, for pain ranging from cesarean section,17 breast biopsy surgery,18 “nonspecific subacute neck pain” and low back pain,19 and for migraine headaches, especially when applied early in the attack.20

Not to mention the fact that with lavender, “there’s no potential for drug abuse.”21 For aromatherapy, add five to 10 drops of lavender oil to a bowl of warm water. You can cover your head with a towel to get the most of the vapors, lean over the bowl and breathe deeply until your headache starts to diminish. You can also use a few diluted drops to massage behind your ears, your temples and back of your neck.

Eucalyptus Essential Oil

This oil is good for several types of headache pain,22 but it’s said to be most effective for people suffering from headaches due to chronic sinusitis. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry23 reported that inhaling eucalyptus oil may relieve pain and lower inflammation.

Mix one drop with a teaspoon of carrier oil such as the aforementioned coconut oil before massaging into your chest, temples and forehead. Breathe the vapors as described in the lavender oil section, and place a few drops onto a handkerchief to inhale the fragrance whenever needed.

Chamomile Essential Oil

Another effective oil for migraines, chamomile oil reduces inflammation, according to a 2014 Medical Hypotheses study,24 which described it as “a novel medicine for the relief of migraine pain.” The Top 10 Home Remedies says it also relieves symptoms of stress and anxiety, which may in turn serve to relieve your migraine.

Dilute a few drops of chamomile oil with one or two drops of a carrier oil to massage into your temples and forehead. Inhaling the steam after placing a few drops into hot water is another way to help treat your pounding head.

Rosemary Essential Oil

A 2013 study25 published in Food Chemistry points to rosemary as having a long history in tradition for treating headaches due to the potent anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving compounds it contains. It backs up a 2008 study26 that found the same benefits. Added to that are comments by Top 10 Home Remedies:

“It helps treat headaches because of its stimulating, anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. It has a calming effect on the body and helps reduce stress and insomnia, common triggers that can cause headaches.”27

Suggested ways to use rosemary essential oil for migraine headache relief include adding one or two drops to a cup of tea, water or soup and drinking it. You can also mix two drops of rosemary oil with two drops of peppermint oil and a teaspoon of coconut oil to massage your forehead, temples and the back of your neck.

You can get an allergen test before using essential oils to make sure you’re not allergic. This entails applying a diluted amount of oil onto your skin and observing if allergic reactions occur. If you experience side effects, don’t use the oil. However, while oils like those mentioned above can have therapeutic effects, they aren't instant cures, nor are they a substitute for optimal nutrition and a healthy lifestyle.

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