There are dozens of essential oils, all with unique smells, properties, and characteristics. How essential oils help relieve arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis (a condition characterized by chronic inflammation of joint linings) and osteoarthritis (in which cushioning cartilage wears away) is varied.
Some essential oils for arthritis provide numbing effects. Some curb inflammation. Some interrupt pain-receptors in the brain. And some work in a combination of ways. Here, just a few essential oils used for arthritis and the science that backs them up.
One study looking at people who got knee replacement surgery (a common surgery for people with osteoarthritis in the knee joint) found that those who inhaled eucalyptus oil for 30 minutes on three consecutive days post-surgery reported less pain than those in the control group. The researchers think the reduced pain may be due to eucalyptus oil’s anti-inflammatory properties and its ability to increase serotonin, a brain chemical that seems to blunt pain.*
* Jun Y, Suk K, Purum M, Sun S, Lee J-M, Kim H-K, Seol GH. Effect of eucalyptus oil inhalation on pain and inflammatory responses after total knee replacement: A randomized clinical trial. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2013;2013:502727. doi:10.1155/2013/502727
Ginger has been used for centuries for its anti-inflammatory effects. People in one study who massaged ginger oil into their arthritic knees twice a week stated they had less pain and better movement in their knees than those who didn’t use the oil.*
* Tosun B, Unal N, Yigit D, Can N, Aslan O, Tunay S. Effects of self-knee massage with ginger oil in patients with osteoarthritis: An experimental study. Research and Theory for Nursing Practice. 2017;31(4):379-392. doi:10.1891/1541-65220.127.116.119
Lavender Oil Mix
Subjects with rheumatoid arthritis who had their knees massaged with coconut oil containing 5% lavender, juniper, and cananga oils (cananga trees are native to India) three times a week for six weeks reported less pain and fatigue than those who didn’t get the treatment.*
* Metin ZG, Ozdemir L. The effects of aromatherapy massage and reflexology on pain and fatigue in patients with rheumatoid arthritis: A randomized controlled trial. Pain Management Nursing. 2016;17(2),140-149. doi:10.1016/j.pmn.2016.01.004
Pads containing drops of orange oil were placed on the collars of people admitted to the emergency room with broken bones; the pads were replaced every hour. Researchers found that people exposed to the orange oil reported less pain than those who didn’t receive the oil.*
While this study didn’t look at arthritis, per se, it stands to reason that orange oil—which has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties—may help with the pain associated with joint disease.**
* Hekmatpou D, Pourandish Y, Farahani PV, Parvizrad R. The effect of aromatherapy with the essential oil of orange on pain and vital signs of patients with fractured limbs admitted to the emergency ward: A randomized clinical trial. Indian Journal of Palliative Care. 2017;23(4),431–436. doi:10.4103/IJPC.IJPC_37_17
** Rheumatoid Arthritis Support Network. RA essential oils: What essential oils are anti-inflammatory? Updated Oct. 27, 2018.
Using Essential Oils
Most essential oils used for arthritis and joint diseases are massaged into the skin around the affected joint. In some cases they’re inhaled (called aromatherapy). When using essential oils, look for ones that are 100% pure oil without added ingredients (such as alcohol) and choose ones manufactured in dark bottles, as light can degrade the oil.*
Massaging With Essential Oils
Follow these steps:
- Choose a carrier oil such as coconut, avocado, almond, or jojoba oil.
- Mix several drops (10-20, typically) in an ounce or so of the carrier oil.11 Don’t use essential oils directly on the skin. Undiluted, they can be irritating.
- Massage into skin.
Aromatherapy With Essential Oils
Enjoy aromatherapy in these different ways:
- Mix several drops of an essential oil with a tablespoon or so of vegetable oil or milk and add it to your bath.
- Place a couple of drops of essential oil on a cotton puff and place in a plastic bag. Take out the puff and smell periodically throughout the day.
- Add 30-45 drops of an essential oil to a spray bottle filled with 3 ounces of water. Spritz your home, office, or even your bedsheets.
* Arthritis Foundation. Aromatherapy for arthritis relief.
Side effects can vary depending on how and how often you use the oils, which oils you use, and at what strength you use them. Side effects can include:
- Skin irritation: This can especially occur when the oil is left on the skin for a long time. Certain oils, including bergamot, lemongrass, and oregano, are among some of the more irritating ones. Signs you’re having an allergic reaction to an oil include a red, itchy skin rash or hives (raised, red itchy bumps on the skin).*
- Sun sensitivity: This may especially be noted when the oil is used before going outside in the sun.
- Hormonal issues: Lavender and tea tree oil, when used over a long period of time, have been associated with breast growth in boys who haven’t yet reached puberty.**
* Johns Hopkins Medicine. Aromatherapy: Do essential oils really work?
** Michigan Medicine. Aromatherapy with essential oils (PDQ®): Integrative, alternative, and complementary therapies – Patient information [NCI]. Updated Nov. 7, 2019.
Talk to your doctor before using essential oils for arthritis. Let your doctor know about any current medications or supplements to help avoid interactions with essential oils.