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Health & Wellness

Can Physical Therapy Ease Your 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 many individuals keep their pain—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—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

Given the role that physical therapists play in a person’s overall health—they can help patients learn to walk again after an injury or ease back pain that has lingered for decades—it comes as no surprise that many physical therapists are beloved for their expertise.

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 closed, 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. 1

Despite this differential treatment, the health benefits of physical therapy cannot be argued against.

Physical Therapy Benefits

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 them.

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, neurological, 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 calmness.

Additionally, essential oils can help with the trinity of physical therapy problems: 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 up the healing process.

Back Pain

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

As carriers oils, 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 is thick and will stay at the surface of the skin, making it ideal for pain at a specific site. Both of these are excellent when used as massage oils and can be paired with the following essential oils for best results:

Ginger Essential Oil

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

Eucalyptus Essential Oil

A 2003 study in the Bulletin of the Chemical Society of Ethiopia found that cineole, a 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, and the two relieve pain in synergy. 5

Peppermint Essential Oil

This cooling oil is an ideal pairing with physical therapy, and a 2012 study from Libyan researchers is just one of many studies that explore 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.

Shoulder Pain

While shoulder pain can be caused by poor posture, too much time at the computer, a bad tennis swing, or lifting wrong, a lot of 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 in two ways. Not only does it help ease the stress that can lead to tension, but it also acts as an analgesic. A 2003 study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that lavender helped ease inflammation and stress, suggesting that a shoulder massage with lavender and a carrier oil could relieve pain in two unique but effective ways.

Chamomile Essential Oil

German chamomile contains chamazulene, which has been found to be as effective at relieving inflammation as over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). In 2010, researchers studied the stress and pain relief benefits of chamomile in a study that appeared in Molecular Medical Report. 7

Wild Orange Essential Oil

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

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—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 when applied topically, making basil essential oil a gentle, effective option for relieving knee pain.

Marjoram Essential Oil

Marjoram is an anti-inflammatory that can help ease knee pain while reducing the swelling in knee joints.

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 oil that can also be used to ease the stress that can trigger shoulder pain.

Final Thoughts

For more information about essential oils and the benefits that they offer for pain relief—especially your specific pain—don’t be afraid to ask your physical therapist. Going to a physical therapy can prove to be highly beneficial for your body if you've discussed with your doctor that this is the right option for you, and adding essential oils to this practice can provide even more health and wellness benefits.

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