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Aromatherapy as a Complementary Therapy
The use of essential oils to complement headache & Migraine treatments

In order to write on the topic of aromatherapy sensibly, rather than simply repeating information found elsewhere, I took time to work with essential oils and other aromatherapy tools.

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"My best friend in the whole wide world when I have a Migraine (aside from my ice pack!) is lavender. I put a few drops of essential oil in a small puddle of carrier oil (Body Shop unscented massage oil is my choice) and rub it in my temples, neck and shoulders. I also put a few drops on my pillow. This is usually a good way to help me relax and fall asleep while waiting for pain killers to kick in. Sometimes if I catch a Migraine early enough, I can do this with a lesser pain killer ..."
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Aromatherapy is often called an "alternative therapy. Based on my experience, I would prefer to call aromatherapy a "complementary therapy," one that can be used in conjunction with other therapies, including headache and Migraine medications. Each person should, of course, check with their own physician, but mine advised me that he felt it was a safe complementary therapy for me.

What IS Aromatherapy?
Simply stated, aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils extracted from plants for both physiological and psychological treatment. Aromatherapy is an ancient practice that began when people of early civilizations began discovering the healing properties of plants.

The term "aromatherapy" was first used by René-Maurice Gattefossé, a French chemist in 1928. Gattefossé was working in his family's 0perfumier business when he accidentally discovered that lavender caused a severe burn on his hand to heal more rapidly and without scarring. Another of his observations was that essential oils in their whole state were more effective than synthetics or any of the isolated active ingredients of the oils. Another French scientist, Dr. Jean Valnet used essential oils to successfully treat both medical and psychiatric disorders. The first actual aromatherapy clinics were established in Paris, Britain, and Switzerland by Madame Marguerite Maury.1

Essential Oils
Essential oils are not oils as we generally think of oils. Most of them have a very light texture and evaporate quickly. Essential oils are found in all the various parts of plants including the bark, roots, leaves, flowers, seed, wood, resin, and balsam. Some plants produce rather large quantities of oil, some have very low content. Take for example one of the most popular oils, rose. There is so little aromatic content in rose flowers that it a ton of petals produces only 10.5 ounces (300g) of rose oil. It's important to note that essential oils should virtually never be applied directly to the skin until mixed in a carrier oil. Carrier oils are pure gentle oils, such as sweet almond oil and apricot kernel oil that "carry" the essence to the skin.

Today, essential oils are extracted from the plants used for aromatherapy, making them very concentrated. The two basic ways aromatherapy is accomplished is by applying the oils to the skin and by inhalation. The term "aromatherapy" can be a bit misleading because it's not only the aroma that is therapeutic. The oils also interact with body chemistry directly, thus affecting certain systems and organs. You can demonstrate this yourself by rubbing garlic on the soles of your feet. After awhile, the garlic aroma will be evident on your breath.

Some of the tools of aromatherapy
Photo © Teri Robert

Aromatherapy for Headaches/Migraine
You can find an essential oil recommended pretty much "for whatever ails you." For our purposes, we'll be looking at those oils most often recommended for headaches, Migraine, depression, panic, anxiety, sleep. The chart below lists some of the oils recommended for these needs. Here, also, is a list of ten oils suggested for getting started with aromatherapy. Some experimentation will tell you which combinations work best for you.


Carrier Oils For Headaches/Migraine
  • Sweet Almond
  • Apricot Kernel
  • Avocado
  • Coconut
  • Sesame
  • Lavender
  • Peppermint
  • Bay
  • Melissa
  • Jasmine
  • Eucalyptus
  • Rosemary
For Depression For Anxiety/Panic
  • Orange
  • Bergamot
  • Lemon
  • Lemon Verbena
  • Lemongrass
  • Melissa
  • Petitgrain
  • Orange Blossom
  • Chamomile
  • Grapefruit
  • Mandarin
  • Orange
  • Juniper
  • Fir
  • Basil
  • Cedarwood
  • Ylang Ylang
  • Sandalwood
  • Frankincense
  • Clove
  • Clary Sage
  • Patchouli
For Relaxation/Sleep 10 To Get Started
  • Bergamot
  • Chamomile
  • Lavender
  • Mandarin
  • Sandalwood
  • Frankincense
  • Clary Sage
  • Juniper
  • Marjoram
  • Jasmine


  • Sweet Almond
  • Peppermint
  • Chamomile
  • Lavender
  • Lemongrass
  • Bergamot
  • Eucalyptus
  • Jasmine
  • Frankincense
  • Clary Sage


Think about your headaches/Migraine attacks. Do they make you feel depressed, anxious, or panicked? Do you need to sleep, but have trouble? Choose some of the oils from the chart, mix one or more with some carrier oil, and give them a try. You can wait until you need them, and mix a small amount in the palm of your hand, or you can mix the oils ahead in a bottle.  For example, I tend to experience anxiety and panic during the headache phase of a Migraine attack. I'm also prone to drop or spill things, so I premix oils in a small, roll-on bottle. My Migraine and relaxation/sleep blends are:


Migraine Blend

  • Fill bottle approximately 2/3 with Sweet Almond Oil
  • 6 drops Lavender Oil (headache/Migraine)
  • 6 drops Clary Sage Oil (anxiety/panic)
  • 6 drops Chamomile Oil (sleep)
  • 12 drops Peppermint Oil (headache/Migraine) Peppermint is also very helpful for nausea.
  • Cover top with finger and shake. Check the fragrance of the oil. If it is unpleasant to you, add a few drops of whichever oil you prefer to make it more pleasant.
  • Fill any remaining space in bottle with Sweet Almond Oil, insert the roller ball, and cap the bottle.
  • To use: Apply to temples and areas of pain. Massage lightly. You can also roll some onto the back of your hand


Relaxation/Sleep Blend

  • Fill bottle approximately 2/3 with Sweet Almond Oil (For this one, I use a small glass bottle with an orifice reducer — a plastic insert for the opening that allows the oils to come out a drop at a time.
  • 6 drops Lavender Oil
  • 6 drops Bergamot Oil
  • 6 drops Chamomile Oil
  • Finish filling bottle with Jasmine Oil, 10% in Jojoba Oil. (Pure Jasmine is very potent and very expensive. The 10% formulation is commonly used.)
  • If you don't like the fragrance of Jasmine, substitute an amount of Mandarin oil to achieve a pleasant fragrance, then fill the rest of the way with Almond Oil.
  • Insert orifice reducer into top of bottle, then cap.
  • To use: Variety of uses. Sprinkle a few drops on your pillow, massage your temples, etc.


Another way to enjoy and benefit from essential oils is by using an aroma lamp, such as demonstrated in this photograph. Simply fill the bowl with water, add about a dozen drops of your choice of oils to the water, then light the tea candle beneath the bowl. The flame will heat the water and oil, sending the scent into your room. Aroma lamps come in a variety of styles. You can also use electric diffusers for the same purpose. Lemongrass is one of my favorite oils for this ues.


There are also other forms of aromatherapy — candles, massage oils, lotions, and more. Making your own is interesting and the best way to know exactly what is in your products. This can be especially important to Migraineurs whose attacks can be triggered by some smells. If you decide to purchase aromatherapy products rather than making your own, please be sure to check the ingredients.

Ready to experiment and learn? Good! The book at the right, Aromatherapy for Dummies is full of good, basic information and charts to help you get started. An excellent book for giving full information on many, many oils is The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils by Julia Lawless. You may or may not be able to readily find aromatherapy supplies where you live. If you want to buy online, there are many excellent sources including Nature's Gift andLavender Lane.


Aromatherapy. As with any primary or complementary therapy, the benefits will vary with individuals. From my experience, I consider it well worth trying. I can't tell you if it actually acts on my Migraine attacks or if it's the relaxation that results from aromatherapy that helps, but it does help with my Migraine attacks and is quite useful for reducing stress, something we can all use.


Lawless, Julia, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. Element Books, 1995, pp 22-23.            

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