Essential oils are gaining popularity for supplementing or even replacing pharmaceutical remedies for conditions such as anxiety, stress, pain, and dermatitis. People use these highly concentrated plant extracts in home diffusers for aromatherapy, skincare products, and massage oils.
Many people claim that you can use essential oils such as lavender, rosemary, chamomile, and eucalyptus to treat headaches and migraines. However, headaches and migraines are usually initiated or worsened by potent odors. So, can essential oils actually cause migraines or headaches?
Headaches and migraines are often associated with intolerance to strong odors. Essential oils are potent odorants and may cause or worsen headaches and migraines. Some essential oils are purported to relieve headache or migraine pain, but this depends on the individual and should be carefully investigated under the care of a professional.
To answer the question “can essential oils cause migraines or headaches?” we need to look at the pathophysiology of these conditions as well as the physiological effect of essential oils.
Types Of Headaches
Headaches are either primary or secondary. Primary headaches are independent conditions of pain in the head, face, or neck. They are caused by overactivity or other problems with pain-sensitive structures located in the head. Primary headaches are classified as one of four categories: tension-type, migraine, trigeminal autonomic cephalalgias, and other. The most common trigeminal autonomic cephalalgias headaches are cluster headaches.
Secondary headaches are caused by different conditions such as sinusitis, aneurysm, infections, or even an overdose of medicine (rebound headaches). Secondary headaches are a symptom, not a condition.
Common Primary Headache And Migraine Triggers
Headaches and migraines can be triggered by emotional, physical, dietary, and environmental stimuli.
- Emotional stimuli include stress, anxiety, tension, and excitement.
- Physical stimuli include poor sleep patterns, tiredness, hypoglycemia, and strenuous exercise.
- Dietary stimuli include intermittent fasting (intentional or unintentional), dehydration, alcohol consumption, caffeine, food additives, and undiagnosed food allergies.
- Environmental stimuli include bright or flickering lights, loud noises, poor air quality, and smells.
Pathophysiology Of Headaches And Migraines
The exact pathophysiological mechanism of headaches is unknown, but it probably involves the trigeminocervical nucleus. The trigeminocervical nucleus is an area of the brainstem that receives information from the trigeminal nerves and the cervical spinal nerves.
When a certain stimulus triggers the trigeminal or cervical spinal nerves, or they become irritated or overactivated, messages are transmitted along the nerves, triggering what is known as cortical spreading depression.
Cortical spreading depression is a slow and self-propagating wave of cell depolarization that moves across the cerebral cortex and causes depression of brain activity. Cortical spreading depression is suggested to be the primary cause of auras associated with migraines. As the wave spreads, it causes the blood vessels on the surface of the brain to constrict, thereby reducing the transportation of oxygen within the brain.
The brain then releases chemicals such as norepinephrine and serotonin, and they travel to the same surface blood vessels causing inflammation and dilation, increasing blood flow. The decrease and subsequent increase in blood flow are likely the cause of the pulsing feeling headaches and migraines produce.
The Link Between The Olfactory System And The Trigeminal Nerves
The trigeminal nerves innervate the nose. While there is no direct physiological link between the olfactory nerves and the trigeminal nerves, research has shown that these nerves are closely linked. Odorants have the potential to trigger both nerves. In fact, some people who have lost their sense of smell (damage to the olfactory system) can still distinguish between smells based on the information their brain receives from the trigeminal nerves.
This means that odorants that trigger the olfactory nerves also have the potential to trigger the trigeminal nerves and cause cortical spreading depression and the release of inflammatory chemicals. Not all odorants will cause headaches, and those that do will not necessarily cause headaches every time. As mentioned previously, the exact pathophysiology of headaches is as yet unknown.
Odors Commonly Associated With Headaches And Migraines
Many people report that a certain smell can set off a headache or migraine and make them worse. The most common smells associated with the development or intensification of headaches and migraines are perfumes, paint thinners, cigarette smoke, cleaning products, strong food smells, and car exhaust emissions.
Essential oils are usually strongly aromatic. Many perfumes even use essential oils for their fragrance. This means that essential oils are possible causes of migraines and headaches. And if they don’t cause migraines and headaches, they can aggravate them.
If you start experiencing chronic headaches when you use essential oils, you should stop and consult a medical professional. It may be the amount, duration, and type of essential oil you are using, or it may just be that you are too sensitive to odorants to use essential oils.
Use Of Essential Oils In The Treatment Of Headaches And Migraines
Every person is different and should make their own investigations (under the supervision of a medical professional) to establish whether they can use essential oils in the treatment of headaches or migraines.
Typically, people who suffer chronically from headaches or migraines know instinctively what will trigger an attack. In this case, they might naturally avoid essential oils. This is the same protective instinct that the body employs to prevent you from ingesting poisonous substances or substances to which you are allergic.
A better use of essential oils may be the prevention of headaches. As stated previously, stress, anxiety, poor sleep, and tiredness are common causes of headaches. Essential oils like chamomile, lavender, bergamot, and frankincense, have been known to relieve stress and anxiety and combat mild insomnia.
Alternative Natural Ways To Treat Headaches And Migraines
When people are looking to relieve pain with essential oils, they are often motivated by a preference to use natural remedies instead of pharmaceutical medication. In this case, there are other natural alternatives you can use for pain relief.
Drinking water. Often people develop headaches due to dehydration. This is a common cause of tension-type headaches especially. Drinking water and rehydrating your body may help to relieve the pain.
Lying down in a dark, quiet room. Light and sounds often trigger or aggravate headaches and migraines. Resting in a dark and quiet room will help by eliminating the negative stimulus and allow your body to recover.
Use a cold compress. Application of a cold compress to your head or neck can assist in pain relief as it reduces inflammation and nerve conduction and constricts the blood vessels, thereby counteracting the pathophysiological mechanism of headaches and migraines.
Use a heat pack. If you are suffering from a tension-type headache, using a heat pack on your neck, shoulders, and back can reduce the muscle tension that may be causing your headache.
Try doing yoga or getting a massage. You can also use these techniques to relieve the muscle tension in your body, which may be causing your headache or migraine. There are certain yoga poses specifically recommended for migraine relief. Remember that any strenuous exercise can worsen your pain, so stick to easy yoga positions.
There are definite benefits to avoiding the use of pharmaceuticals for pain relief, especially if you suffer from chronic headaches and migraines. However, you also have to be aware that the worse pain gets, the harder it is to control it, and if you let your pain get out of hand, you may require higher doses of medicine to bring it under control.
Even though essential oils like lavender, rosemary, chamomile, and eucalyptus are recommended as effective natural treatments of headaches and migraines, essential oils can easily cause headaches migraines.
Headaches and migraines are often triggered or aggravated by strong odors such as those associated with essential oils due to the close relationship between the olfactory nerves and the trigeminal nerves, which are involved in the pathophysiology of headaches and migraines. It is also worth noting that a common side effect of essential oil overuse is the development of headaches or migraines.
It is a good idea to speak to a medical professional before using essential oils in the treatment of medical conditions because even though essential oils are natural, they are extremely concentrated and can have toxic effects if misused. Also, speak to your medical professional about other natural treatments for headaches and migraines.