Every human body experiences aches or pains. For some, it is an ache or pain that comes and goes quickly such as a sore muscle from doing heavy lifting or challenging workouts. For others, it could be periodic headaches or aches when weather changes or hormones fluctuate. However, some people experience aches and pains that can be constant and persistent.
How is it that aches and pains can vary so widely? This is due to a number of factors, including the underlying cause for the discomfort, the amount of emotional or physical stress the individual is experiencing, or even multiple issues occurring at once.
The source of any ache or pain can vary, and though people often think of pain as relating mostly to the joints or muscles, they can also be due to issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), skin conditions, and even emotional or mental issues. Depression, for example, can be marked by the presence of bodily discomforts and aches.
This underscores the important psychological and physiological connection when it comes to pain. For example, individuals who suffer from chronic pain could consequently experience mental or emotional pain. This is because there is a psychological strain that develops when the body suffers pain on a near-constant or daily basis.
Overview of Aches and Pains
If you look at what medical professionals say about aches and pains, most agree that pains and body aches are symptoms of a range of different conditions.1
As a simple illustration of this statement, a brief list of common causes for aches and pains would include:
- Lack of sleep
- Cold or flu
- Bone or joint injury
- Vitamin D Deficiency
- Mononucleosis infection
- Muscle strain or pull
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Lyme Disease
This list includes many common causes of aches and pains, and yet it is a list that has the potential to easily fill many pages. However, it’s important to note that just as the types of pain that can be experienced are wide-ranging, so are their underlying causes. Because of this, it’s always helpful to consider the core cause of an ache or pain in order to treat it more effectively.
More studies are looking at what are known as memory cells, which indicate that small, seemingly unimportant injuries leave molecular footprints that could eventually result in lasting damage or chronic pain.2
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In other words, an injury or issue that should not be creating long-lasting or severe pain could eventually do just that. For many years, the phenomenon of chronic pain has baffled doctors, scientists, and even patients. Why would an old injury still generate so much pain if it is fully healed? Is it all in the mind? Does that person just have a very low threshold for pain?
Debunking the idea that pain is “all in the mind,” these studies show that the human nervous system can make what one doctor described as a “maladaptive memory.” 3
As these researchers explained, when pain pathways are functioning optimally, they work to protect the body through chemical and electrical signals. Usually, pain is an important part of day-to-day life as it warns individuals of danger—individuals who can’t experience pain usually don’t live very long.
So, aches and pains do serve a purpose, alerting individuals that they have an injury or health issue. To do this, the body uses millions of nerve endings in the skin and tissues which react to most things that can cause the body harm.
An activated pathway sends signals along nerves to the spinal cord which creates a chain reaction that relays the message to the brain. The brain then cues the proper responses and reactions. It could be for vessels to contract and cut off blood flow to a serious injury or the production of certain hormones.
Despite these varied and wide-ranging responses, there can still be a malfunction in the system. For instance, no matter what, the sensors near any injury will remain a bit more sensitive throughout the healing process. This prevents individuals from further irritating the injured areas, speeding up the healing process.
The process is known as hyperalgesia, and though the fundamental mechanism behind it seems beneficial, it has strong links to chronic pain.
For example, let’s say you sustain a painful injury to your hand. You experienced a strong jolt of pain when the injury occurred, and though the bones, skin, and tendons are fully healed and functional, there remains chronic pain and intense sensitivity.
Before that injury, you might have spilled hot or even scalding water on the injured area but feel the pain subside within minutes. After the injury, however, the pain of hot or scalding water might last for hours or even days.
This means that pain signals can become far stronger and more persistent than they should be, and yet there are ways to reprogram the mind and nervous system to bring this unnatural, chronic pain to an end.
How? It begins with stress, more accurately, the amount of stress you are experiencing at any given time, and your ability to manage stress.
Memory Cells, Stress, and Pain: A Difficult Combination
In her best-selling book, Is This Your Child?, author and pediatric allergist Dr. Doris Rapp built on the memory cell theory, developing a concept known as the barrel effect.4
Essentially, her theory states that individuals can view the many stresses in life (physical, mental, and emotional) as being contained in a single barrel inside of the body. If that barrel is not full, individuals can deal with new stressors.
If the barrel is full, the body will react to stress differently and displays a general inability or inefficiency in reacting to stressful situations.
Once the barrel is full, the smallest factors can have significant negative consequences. In other words, an allergen might always be an allergen for someone, but one day might trigger a far greater response because of internal levels of stress. Dr. Rapp insists this is directly linked to memory cells.
The problem is that individuals are not designed to exist with perpetually full stress barrels as this can easily cause the mind to malfunction. However, the cycle can be self-perpetuating because a trigger causes a stress response and the body continually overreacts to it.
This means that even if the stress barrel is empty or nowhere near full, a specific stressor might cause your body and mind to overreact due to the action of memory cells. However, it’s possible to keep stress levels at a minimum through effectively coping with stressors, which can consequently act to keep the chronic pain away.
Relieving Aches and Pains By Reducing Stress
All of this adds up to one important connection: if individuals hope to address aches and pains, it’s important to be aware of everything affecting the body, not just the aches and pains themselves.
Holistic practitioners adhere to this theory, explaining that the issue is not just that your knee is sore, for example. Rather, they want to know about your emotional state, other issues with your body, and so on. They look at the whole person, not a single issue or symptom. With this holistic approach, it’s important to realize that one way of tackling aches and pains is through managing stress levels.
The impact of stress on the body is astonishing as it triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response.5 Your heart races, your breath quickens, and your muscles get ready for action. This response was designed to protect the body in an emergency, but when the stress response keeps firing, day after day, it could put your health at serious risk.
And when you begin to explore the issues that stress creates, you can also see direct links to the underlying causes of aches and pains. If you were to work your way from head to toe, you would see that chronic stress can cause issues such as:
- Tension headaches
- Increased levels of anxiety
- Sleep issues
- Rapid breathing
- Weakened immune system
- The increased threat of heart attack or stroke
- Increased blood sugar and blood pressure
- Racing heartbeat
- Stomach disorders, nausea, or disrupted digestion
- Low sex drive
- Chronic fatigue
- Irregular menstruation
- Muscle tension leading to a headache, backache, or bodily injury
Yes, stress is an evolutionary coping mechanism, but this list highlights that it can get out of hand quickly in the hustle and bustle of daily life. This is why it’s important to develop self-awareness about your level of stress and the impact it has on your body.
For instance, stress authentically triggers things like aches and pains, and heightening your self-awareness about such issues is a good beginning at finally reigning in uncontrolled stress.
Essential Oils for Relieving Aches and Pains
A 2017 report from the International Journal of Molecular Science took an in-depth look at the analgesic activities of essential oils components, which pointed to many essential that have therapeutic potential as analgesics pain relievers.6
Specifically, the report focused on one primary component of essential oils: terpenes, which are naturally occurring substances produced by plants.7 In plants, these are not required for basic metabolism but are necessary for long-term survival. However, terpenes provide even more extensive benefits when used by humans aromatically or topically through essential oils.
The most obvious effect is the responses those terpenes create in the human body and mind when their scent is used in aromatherapy. As a simple example, every positive experience in your life is likely to have sensory experiences associated with it. The flavor of a particular food or drink, the sounds that surrounded you during the experience, and even smells that have become part of the memory.
Let’s say that you had a particularly pleasant experience in your backyard as a child and that was etched into your memory. It just so happened that the lawn had been mown shortly before that event, and so today you might pick up the light scent of newly mown grass and feel happy, relaxed, and calm because of it. Essential oils work in much the same way. In fact, some essential oils blends cater to this idea of nostalgia therapy.
There are also benefits that come from essential oils that are not so distinct or even noticeable. For example, the practice of forest bathing which has grown in popularity in recent years involves simply walking through the forest and focusing in on the sensory experience. However, studies have shown that this simple practice of relaxing and breathing clean, terpene-rich air provides extensive health benefits.8
Essential oils are comprised mostly of these same terpenes and have been used for centuries to treat diseases. However, it has not been until the advent of modern chemical studies that the mechanisms of these oils were understood. Even now, the catalog of known terpenes grows continually, with more than 55,000 already identified.
The Functions of Terpenes
Because essential oils are comprised primarily of terpenes, it’s important to understand a little more about terpenes in order to understand how essential oils can effectively help relieve some aches and pains.
Terpenes have been studied an extensively in the past few decades and have been found to have benefits to humans including:
- Anti-Inflammatory function
- Bronchodilatory effects
- Neuroprotective benefits
- Antibacterial, antifungal, and antimicrobial actions
- Analgesic effects
- Sedative and motor relaxant effects
Given the wide range of benefits that terpenes boast, it’s no wonder when a range of these beneficial compounds is combined into one essential oil, the mix is even more beneficial. Whether used topically or aromatically, these potent plant compounds have the potential to not only alleviate aches and pains but reduce stress, improve sleep quality, and provide a range of other benefits to overall health and well-being.
Best Essential Oils for Relief of Aches, Pains, and More
Lavender Essential Oil
Easily the shining star of essential oils, lavender has a soothing scent and is a noted stress reliever. Many people use it to help induce a state of sleepiness and relaxation, and it is so safe that a quality container of lavender essential oil will not need to be diluted before use.8
Lavender essential oil is best for reducing muscle tension, alleviating headache pain, reducing inflammation, improving sleep quality, relieving stress, soothing insect bites or minor burns, and remedying dermatitis or eczema.
To use this oil, place a few drops in your palms and inhale deeply. Rub the excess on the bottoms of the feet, the wrists, or the temples, which will induce a state of calm and relaxation. You can also dab it on the skin to help soothe burns, bites, and irritation.
Alternatively, try it in a personal diffuser like Relieve MONQ.
Peppermint Essential Oil
Incredibly versatile and effective, peppermint essential oil also sits right at the top of the list of the best all-around essential oils. Additionally, its wonderful scent and a long list of benefits make it one you must always have on hand.
You can use peppermint essential oil to relieve stomach pain, relax muscles, remedy headache pain, or relieve symptoms of colds and congestion. This essential oil also boasts mild sedative effects.
To use this essential oil topically, blend it with a carrier oil like almond, coconut, or jojoba oil and apply to the abdomen for stomach upset, to the muscles for aches and pain, and to the chest for congestion.
You can also cup several drops of diluted oil to your hand and inhale the scent to curb cravings, clear the mind, and even boost energy. Creating a steam bath with it is also a popular way to clear the head or alleviate headaches.
As a reliable stress reliever, you can always drink a cup of peppermint tea, but applying it topically to the skin or using it in aromatherapy is also effective for eliminating stress.
Chamomile Essential Oil
This rates as another essential oil often deemed a staple among natural remedies. While many people drink teas brewed from the flowers, the chamomile plant is more than just a mild sedative.
Chamomile essential oils can be used to remedy muscle pain, joint pain, inflammation, digestive issues, and PMS and menstrual symptoms. Additionally, it can boost immune system function, promote calmness, and improve sleep quality.
To use this essential oil, add a small amount of the oil to your body lotion or to some pure coconut oil and gently rub it on your body, particularly anywhere there are aches and pains.
You can also inhale it similarly to the way you might inhale lavender in the palms of your hands, and you can safely add one drop to a warm drink or cup of tea before bedtime. You can also use it in bathwater to enjoy a muscle-soothing and relaxing soak in the tub.
Sandalwood Essential Oil
If there were a “precious” category among essential oils, sandalwood would appear there because it is a very expensive oil to obtain. The reason for this is simple: it is available in limited amounts because the best oils can only be made from sandalwood trees that are 50 years of age and older.
It has been used for centuries as an anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, to treat muscle and joint pain, to improve the health of the skin, for the treatment of scars and blemishes, and to improve mood.
To use it, simply allow it to diffuse from a large bowl full of hot water (natural vaporizing). You can also cover your head with a towel and inhale the vapors from a steam bath with one or two drops of sandalwood floating on the surface.
Eucalyptus Essential Oil
Many individuals already think of eucalyptus as a medicinal plant, and its essential oil has as many benefits. It is soothing and warming, but it is also fantastic for relieving congestion and inflammation.
Eucalyptus essential oil is best for relieving pain, treating insect bites and stings, fighting inflammation, improving respiratory issues, fighting infection, boosting mental clarity, repelling insects, and disinfecting the home.
Diffusion is a very popular and common way to use eucalyptus essential oil, and whether you’re using it for respiratory issues or to alleviate a cough, you can add a few drops to a diffuser or dilute it with a carrier and apply it to the temples or chest.
Marjoram Essential Oil
A cousin to the mint plant, marjoram is famed for its pain-relieving properties. It has been a tremendously popular folk and natural remedy for centuries with the people of the Anatolia region of Spain.
This is an essential oil that should be tested for sensitivity. Apply a small amount to the skin before applying to larger areas of the body. If you have no negative reactions, this oil is ideal for use on the feet and on the back of the neck to alleviate tension headaches.
To use in aromatherapy, it is best to soak a cotton ball with the oil and place it close to the pillow or face, allowing for prolonged inhalation and exposure.
Rosemary Essential Oil
One of the most famous culinary herbs, rosemary gets its potent fragrance from the terpenes it contains. This essential oil is known for its anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. Additionally, it can be beneficial for remedying symptoms of respiratory issues, treating digestive upsets, and boosting energy.
To use rosemary essential oil, first test your skin for sensitivity. If there is no adverse reaction, you can use it without dilution, though it is often intense and best if blended with a carrier oil such as almond or jojoba.
It can be applied to the feet to help with everything from digestion to pain. It is also a delightful choice for diffusion and can help via aromatherapy with everything from fatigue to tension and stress.
To use this essential oil aromatically, add a few drops to cupped palms, rub them together, and then cover the mouth and nose with the hands to inhale the pure oil for several minutes.
Black Pepper Essential Oil
With its warm and earthy scent, black pepper essential oil is popular on its own in aromatherapy or as part of an energizing and soothing blend.
Black pepper essential oil is especially effective for relieving muscle pain, maintaining healthy circulation, supporting digestion, acting as an antiviral, reducing appetite, and reducing stress.
Highlighted above is only a handful of the essential oils that can help with pain, aches, and stress that can be such a major cause for bodily discomfort and health issues. Try to remember that there is more than just a symptom to treat, and use essential oils to overcome the underlying problems.
Start with an assessment of your level of stress, that “stress barrel” that was mentioned earlier. Is it overly full? If so, what can you do to begin emptying it out? Steps like meditation focused breathing, and gentle exercise (particularly a walk in the woods) can begin to reduce some of these underlying issues.
Think of essential oils as a major tool in your natural arsenal, and explore combinations, different ways of using them, and you’ll soon see how the human body responds so well to terpenes and their healing properties.
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