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The Effect of Aromatherapy on Migraines

Ashton Ballard

October 8, 2009

The Treatment

        Many websites are now touting the use of aromatherapy to prevent and treat migraines.  Due to the extreme debilitating pain caused by migraines, people who experience migraines are usually very motivated to find a method of doing just that.  Suffered by 18% of women and 6% of men, migraines are diverse enough in type and often difficult enough to treat that people often look to alternative methods of treatment.  (http://www.circlesoflight.com/aromatherapy/aroma9.shtml) Claims made by websites about the subject are numerous but all basically say that aromatherapy can ease, prevent, or reduce frequency of migraines.  Few additional concrete claims are made.  Most websites offer almost no rationale or mechanism by which aromatherapy supposedly achieves these goals.  Since aromatherapy has been used since ancient times and is not known to be particularly harmful, few warnings about any harmful side effects.  (http://www.relieve-migraine-headache.com/aromatherapy-for-headache.html). 

For someone looking at the claims made on this website with regard to their own health, most want to know how this treatment works.  While some websites mention that “the exact method by which essential oils work is unknown” http://www.relieve-migraine-headache.com/aromatherapy-for-headache.html), a startling majority do not even make an attempt to address the mechanism behind their claims.  The only efforts made at rationale are maybes, with statements like “the relaxation effects may be due to chemical properties” of the essential oils and that “essential oils are probably metabolized in ways similar to other drugs.”

The next question that most want answered is about the effectiveness of the treatment.  While all the websites touting this treatment obviously consider it a possible solution for people with migraines, most websites include aromatherapy to treat migraines in a list of other alternative methods and allow that it is not an end all and be all.  Almost all websites mention that you should see a doctor if aromatherapy does not help your migraines.  If anything, the fact that these websites do not claim that aromatherapy is a total cure should encourage users.  Migraines are too diverse to be treated by one thing, especially one thing that is unproven to work like this is. It would be ludicrous to claim that aromatherapy would end all migraines because it would be so easily disproven.  Websites don’t even try to claim that it is completely effective or even very effective in most cases, they mostly just say it might help.  Additionally, no evidence is offered to support any of these claims.  This is less inspiring, as one might expect that even though aromatherapy is not a universal cure for migraines, it has helped some people.  Hearing such stories might encourage potential users, and the pure volume of websites touting aromatherapy as a cure means that there must be at least a few people out there who have benefitted from this treatment. 

Finally, most people want to know what the possible harmful side effects of the treatment include.  Like other drugs, essential oils have the potential for drug-drug interactions and possibly overdose (http://www.relieve-migraine-headache.com/aromatherapy-for-headache.html)

 

 

Scientific Literature

 

        When considering such an unproven treatment, it helps to look to the scientific literature about the treatment as it is less biased than many websites run by unknown people with unknown goals and motives. 

        First, one should look to see whether or not the mechanism by which aromatherapy supposedly helps migraines is known within the scientific community, since it apparently is not on most popular websites about this cure.  Unfortunately, this information is either simply not known, not at all certain, or simply not widely available.  However, aromatherapy is widely accepted in the medical and scientific community to be beneficial to patients experiencing stress, anxiety, and migraines even without definitive knowledge of how exactly these effects are achieved. 

        Next,, effectiveness should be examined from this viewpoint.  In one study (Long et al. 2001), healthcare providers were asked to list the most beneficial complementary or alternative treatments that people commonly use today.  Aromatherapy for migraine treatment was one of twelve most common remedies listed by these physicians.  Other alternative treatments for migraine recommended by the 63 physicians that completed the survey included the Bowen technique, chiropractic, hypnotherapy, massage, nutrition, reflexology, Reiki, and yoga.  Additionally The Complete Guide to Migraine Headaches (Peart 2007) offers an entire chapter on the specific herbs that should be used to treat migraines with aromatherapy.  It designates the essential oils of lavender, jasmine, peppermint, eucalyptus, rosemary, and Melissa as remedial relief for migraines.  The chapter instructs the user to “mix small quantities of such oils with other carrier oils or alcohol and then apply lightly to the temples and forehead with a gentle massage” (Peart 2007, 66) and to sniff the oils as well.  This is beneficial to the user because in most of the literature, scientific and not, users are not explicitly instructed how to use the essential oils, which may be a problem for someone who has no experience with them. 

        Next, one should ask if any additional knowledge is available with regard to any potential harmfulness of the treatment.  Aromathearpy for Massage Practitioners (Martin 2007) cautions pregnant women and patients with high blood pressure or epilepsy to avoid rosemary and marjoram oils and homeopathy users against peppermint oil.  Users are also warned not to apply oils directly to skin without appropriate dilution and not to use oils near the eyes.  It is additionally stressed that aromatherapy cannot function as a permanent relief or cure for migraines, but is only a complementary therapy that may not work at all for some people.  Martin also warns that  when a migraine is full fledged, aromatherapy should not be employed as many people become extremely sensitive to different smells while having a migraine.  Aromatherapy should be used either regularly before a migraine occurs or when the headache first becomes a problem.  Aromatherapy can be especially helpful if a person is able to predict their migraines. 

 

Conclusion

 

Both in popular culture and the scientific community, the use of aromatherapy to treat migraines is widely accepted although the exact mechanism by which this result is achieved remains unknown.  Both groups consider aromatherapy as only moderately useful and only for some people. It is not considered to be a method of cure or a substitute for seeing a doctor.  While most websites do not alert people of many risks involved with aromatherapy, the scientific literature available does caution people with certain conditions against certain essential oils. 


Works Cited

Aromatherapy Blends: Three Easy Essential Oil Recipes to Ease Migraines.  Retrieved from http://www.circlesoflight.com/aromatherapy/aroma9.shtml

Investigate aromatherapy for headache... . Retrieved from http://www.relieve-migraine-headache.com/aromatherapy-for-headache.html

Long L., Huntley A., Ernst E. (2001). Which complementary and alternative therapies benefit which conditions? Complementary Therapies in Medicine Vol. 9 (3).  178-185. 

Martin, Ingrid. 2007.  Aromatherapy for Massage Practitioners. Baltimore, Maryland: Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins.

Peart, Alice.  2006.  The Complete Guide to Migraine Headches: Prevention, Treatment, and Remedies.  [city]: Lobby Thornton. 

Rapp, Françoise.  Three Aromatherapy Recipes to Ease Migraines.  Retrieved from http://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/Rapp18.html

 


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