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Health & Wellness

Can physical therapy ease my pain?

My cousin is a physical therapist, and her patients, she says, come to her primarily with knee, back and shoulder problems, not necessarily in that order.

This is where we keep our pain. We gather shoulder pain from stress, back pain from exertion, and knee pain from excessive exercise or age.

Physical therapy is an excellent way to ease pain, and my cousin – as do all physical therapists, in some way or another - mixes massage with her practice, which helps people recover from surgery, injury or long-term pain the origin of which is long forgotten.

Pain relief and the physical therapist

My cousin is really loved by her patients. I know, because she was once invited to a small Christmas gathering at one grateful woman’s home after my cousin treated her. I was visiting my cousin that weekend, so I was her plus one. It was lovely to see how much her patient truly valued her, and although the woman almost killed my cousin that night with a rum ball that contained nuts – my cousin first asked if there were any nuts in the rum balls before she popped one in her mouth, as she has a deadly tree nut allergy, and the woman happily shook her head no. By the time I came out of the restroom, my cousin was handing me my bag so we could race to the ER for an Epi-pen, as her Benadryl wasn’t doing the job. Attempted murder aside, of course, the point was made: Some people love their physical therapists to death. (Pun intended. My cousin is used to the ER, because unsuspecting tree nuts are everywhere.)

Others, however, don’t have the same adoration for the physical therapists that help them heal.

Adele Levine, who wrote about her experiences working as a physical therapist in her book “Run, Don’t Walk: The Curious and Courageous Life Inside Walter Reed Army Medical Center,” expected her patients to love her as she helped them recover from their injuries. But the experience didn’t really live up to those expectations.

Now shuttered, Walter Reed was notorious for its role as one of the leading facilities for amputee rehabilitation, so it should come as no surprise that her military-trained patients were not as overjoyed to see Levine as an elderly woman was to see my cousin.

“Given how tedious and dull the hospital could be, I always expected hospital inpatients to be happy to see us,” Levine wrote. “But they frequently had the opposite reaction. Patients cringed as soon as the door swung open to reveal, ta da! Physical Therapy!” 1

Big benefits of physical therapy

Physical therapy has many benefits. It can reduce pain, improve the healing process and help restore function and movement in body parts that have been injured or disabled.

Surgery, accidents and other injuries often require a physical therapist who provides follow-up care after a doctor has exhausted all the tools available to him or her.

It might be the physical therapist who hears the groans and tears, but it is also the physical therapist who sees someone walk for the first time after months of grueling work adapting to a prosthetic leg.

Physical therapists use a variety of different techniques in their practice, which can include rehabilitation for orthopedic, neurologic or cardiovascular conditions.

Therapists rely on both passive or active therapies to help patients heal, including movement-based activities, strength training exercises, pain relief exercises, low-impact aerobic work to help after heart surgery, for example, or manual therapies such as heat or ice, electrical stimulation, and massage.

The goal is to determine the extent of the injury, then use different methods – massage, manipulation, tension, range of motion activities and other techniques - to first determine the level of injury, then go about the best way of helping it to heal.

One trendy physical therapy technique is cupping – a form of ancient deep-tissue massage used by Jennifer Aniston, Michael Phelps, Justin Bieber, Lena Dunham, and many more – that involves the placement of cups that cause suction, rushing blood flow to the area to ease pain and inflammation. It leaves behind telltale marks, so paparazzi have been quick to zero in on the celebrities who use it. 2

Described as reverse massage, the cups lift muscle away from the bone rather than pressing into it, so it helps lift away toxins, as well, according to massage therapist Sonya Schwartz in a story in the now-defunct website Racked. 3

Essential oils and physical therapy

Because it focuses on relaxation, cupping is one of the physical therapy techniques that can be enhanced by the use of essential oils, which can ease pain and increase feelings of calm.

But essentials can help the trinity of physical therapy problems, as my cousin says, the back, the shoulders, and the knees.

Because each area can benefit from massage, adding essential oils to a carrier oil can help address pain and inflammation, speeding the healing process.


To massage away pain, there are certain carrier oils that are hands-down the best at pairing well with physical therapy techniques, as there are some essential oils that have been studied for their benefits at helping ease both surface and deep muscle pain.

As carriers, coconut and apricot kernel oils are both effective for relieving inflammation, and they both penetrate deep beneath the skin’s surface, making them ideal for targeting muscle pain. Coconut oil, on the other hand, is thick and will stay at the surface of the skin, making it ideal for pain as a specific site. All three are excellent massage oils, however, and can be mixed with the following essentials to help ease back pain:

  • Ginger essential oil. Ginger contains the compound gingerol, which has been used to help target back pain. A 2005 study from Japanese researchers that appeared in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that gingerol had both analgesic and anti-inflammatory benefits.

  • Eucalyptus essential oil. A 2003 study that appeared in the Bulletin of the Chemical Society of Ethiopia found that cineole, the pain compound in eucalyptus oil, acts as a cooling analgesic, relieving pain and improving blood flow to the region being massaged. 4

  • Rosemary essential oil. A study in the Psychosomatic Medicine Journal, along with several other scientific studies, found that rosemary contains compounds that increase blood flow while acting as an analgesic, reducing pain levels. Other studies have found that rosemary pairs well with over-the-counter pain medications, relieving pain in synergy. 5

  • Peppermint essential oil. This cooling oil is an ideal accent paired with physical therapy, and a 2012 study from Libyan researchers is just one that looks at the analgesic benefits of peppermint. 6

Frankincense, thyme and clary sage oil are also beneficial for back pain. The trick is to experiment until you find the one that’s right for you.


While shoulder pain can be caused by poor posture, too much time at the computer, a bad tennis swing, or lifting wrong, for example, much shoulder pain is stress-related, and essential oils that address both stress and pain are the best options for shoulder massage.

  • Lavender essential oil. Lavender works is two ways. Not only does it help ease stress that can lead to tension that could cause shoulder pain, it also acts as an analgesic. A 2003 study appearing in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that lavender helped ease inflammation and stress, suggesting that a shoulder massage with lavender and a carrier would relieve pain in two unique but effective ways.

  • Chamomile essential oil. German chamomile contains chamazulene, which is as effective at treating inflammation as over-the-counter NSAIDs. In 2010, Ohio researchers studied the stress and pain relief benefits of chamomile in a study that appeared in the journal Molecular Medical Report. 7

  • Wild orange. Wild orange contains both myrcene and linalool, which together work in synergy to ease stress. Citrus is an uplifting scent, but wild orange has also been shown to help control pain and inflammation as effectively as NSAIDs. 8


Knee pain is generally the result of inflammation caused by joint and muscle pain, so essential oils that address inflammation – paired with coconut or olive oil as carriers, since they, too, address inflammation – can help ease knee pain before it prevents you from doing the things you love.

  • Basil essential oil. Basil is one of the essential oils that contain the analgesic eugenol. (Clove oil, nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon also have this powerful ingredient.) Eugenol eases pain effectively as a topical, making basil a gentle, effective option for knee pain.

  • Marjoram essential oil. Marjoram is an anti-inflammatory that can help ease knee pain while reducing the swelling in knee joins.

  • Turmeric essential oil. The curcumin in turmeric makes it a superb anti-inflammatory that helps ease the joint pain associated with knee problems.

  • Juniper essential oil. The pain associated with inflammation – including the pain and swelling that accompanies rheumatoid arthritis and other joint pain – can be eased with juniper. Juniper also contains myrcene and limonene, both of which help ease stress, making it an essential that can also be used to ease stress that can trigger shoulder pain.

For more information about essential oils and the benefits they offer for pain relief – especially your specific pain – don’t be afraid to ask your physical therapist. My cousin would be happy to include essentials in her practice because she uses them at home for a variety of ailments.

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