Essential oils for menstrual cramps: Do they help?

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There is limited evidence supporting the use of essential oils for menstrual cramps, but it is unclear which oils or methods for using them are most effective or how they work.

Aromatherapy is an alternative therapy that uses essential oils, which are highly concentrated plant extracts, to ease health conditions. People can inhale the oils, apply them to the skin, or use them in baths.

While a small body of studies do point to some benefits of aromatherapy for menstrual cramps, the diversity in their research methods makes it difficult to know if the results are accurate.

Read on to learn more about essential oils for menstrual cramps, including which ones might help, the risks of essential oils, and how to use them safely.

While research suggests there are health benefits, the FDA doesn’t monitor or regulate the purity or quality of essential oils. It’s important to talk with a healthcare professional before using essential oils and research the quality of a brand’s products. Always do a patch test before trying a new essential oil.

There is a lack of strong scientific evidence supporting the use of essential oils for menstrual cramps. However, some trials have shown positive results.

For example, a 2018 review of previous studies found a “moderate level of evidence” supporting the use of aromatherapy over a placebo for menstrual cramps. This included both inhaling essential oils and using them in massage.

Another review from 2018 also reached similar conclusions. However, in both cases, the scientists looked at studies that used a wide range of essential oils and methods to test them out. This means it is unclear which methods work best.

Both reviews also noted the risk of bias in the research, particularly the second 2018 review, whose authors found a high risk of randomization bias.

This means that there was a good chance the participants in the studies knew if they were receiving real essential oils or a placebo, which could affect their perception of the treatment.

There is no consensus on which specific essential oils are best for menstrual cramps, but research has investigated a few potential options.

Lavender

A 2021 meta-analysis of 13 prior studies found that lavender essential oil reduced pain in people with menstrual cramps. It was effective both on its own and with other oils but even more effective in combination with massage.

An older 2016 triple-blind trial assessed lavender compared to a placebo in 200 students. Compared to a group receiving a placebo, the group that underwent lavender therapy reported less pain at the time of the study, and less severe pain 2 months later.

Peppermint

A 2021 review of previous research says that peppermint essential oil has pain-relieving and anti-spasmodic effects, meaning it may help reduce painful muscle contractions. It can also reduce a type of inflammatory substance that causes menstrual cramps, known as prostaglandin F2a.

However, there has not been as much research on peppermint for menstrual cramps as there has been for other oils. The trials the review mentions often combine this oil with massage, making it difficult to distinguish if the massage or the oil is having a positive effect.

Chamomile

In herbal medicine, chamomile is a sleep aid and anti-anxiety solution. A small body of research suggests it may reduce pain, or reduce the distress people feel about their pain, too.

A 2021 review looked at seven prior clinical trials, two of which looked at menstrual pain alone, two of which looked at bleeding volume, and three of which explored pain and quantity of bleeding. The authors of the review concluded that the data suggests chamomile may ease menstrual pain and bleeding.

However, the studies were generally small, with some shortcomings, so this is not conclusive data.

Other oils

Less frequently, studies support the use of other essential oils. For example, a 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis found some evidence to support the use of:

More research is necessary to confirm if these work reliably in larger groups of people for the treatment of menstrual cramps.

Essential oils are potent substances that can cause side effects. Depending on the oil, dosage, and method of use, this may include:

Some essential oils are toxic and may have risks, particularly for children and pets. For example, citronella and clove oil both contain methyl eugenol, which may cause cancer.

Some essential oils can also have adverse effects during pregnancy, while nursing, and in people taking medications.

People in these groups should check with a doctor before using aromatherapy. It is also important to avoid using essential oils around others if they could be more vulnerable to the effects.

Many studies on essential oils for menstrual cramps use diluted essential oils on the skin or within massage. Some also use inhalation, which is when a person inhales the oil via a diffuser or in steam.

Before using any of these methods, it is important to perform a patch test to ensure a person is not allergic to the essential oil. If there is no reaction, people can try:

Aromatherapy massage

Combining aromatherapy with the tension-relieving benefits of massage may be an effective approach for cramps. To do this:

  1. Dilute a few drops of the chosen essential oil to 15 milliliters (ml) of carrier oil, such as jojoba or almond oil. The Tisserand Institute recommends a strength of between 1–3% for body oils, which is around 4–13 drops per 15 ml. It is best to start with a lower concentration to begin with, particularly for oils with an intense aroma, such as peppermint.
  2. Mix the oil well, then rub some drops of the massage oil between the hands to warm it. Apply to the abdomen, avoiding any broken or damaged skin.
  3. Using the hands or a massage tool, gently rub the abdomen.

The video below from Rachel Richards Massage shows some techniques people can use.

Inhalation

People can inhale essential oils by using a diffuser. This allows them to passively breathe in the oils while they do something else, such as work or sleep.

To use a diffuser safely, follow the device instructions, adding only a few drops of essential oil. Do not add more than the recommendation, and check that no pets or children are around before switching it on, and always use it in a well-ventilated area.

The Tisserand Institute recommends inhaling essential oils from a diffuser or similar device for 20–30 minutes at a time, ensuring there is adequate ventilation.

Aromatherapy bath

Another option for essential oil inhalation is adding essential oils to a warm bath. The heat of a bath could also help with relieving cramps.

To try this, mix 5–20 drops of the essential oil into each 1 tbsp carrier oil. Then, add this oil to running water, adjusting the temperature so that it is warm but not hot.

Do not add essential oils straight into the water without diluting them first. They will sit on the surface, meaning that when a person gets into the bath, undiluted essential oils coat the skin. This could result in a reaction.

A number of other treatments can help with menstrual cramps. They include:

  • applying heat to the affected area
  • gentle exercise
  • over-the-counter pain medication
  • eating a balanced diet, especially when a person gets their period
  • taking magnesium, if a doctor says this is OK

If cramps are persistently severe and affect a person’s ability to do their usual activities, this could be a sign of an underlying condition. Speak with a doctor for a diagnosis and treatment advice.

Essential oils are part of many cultures’ folk traditions, with a wide range of uses. Some anecdotal evidence supports their use for menstrual cramps, but there is limited high quality scientific evidence that they work.

If a person is safe to do so, they can try using diluted essential oils, such as lavender or chamomile, in a carrier oil. They could use this to massage the abdomen, or add some to a bath for additional heat therapy. Diffusing essential oils into the air is also an option.

It is important to follow safety guidelines when using essential oils. They are not suitable for everyone, and improper use can have risks. Always consult a doctor before trying alternative therapies.

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