German researchers it seems are way ahead when it comes to investigating natural remedies for neck pain and tension headaches. Articles published in 1994 and 1996 note the benefits of using peppermint oil for tension headache relief over conventional treatments such as acetaminophen. So how does peppermint oil help with pain relief and will it also work for your neck pain?
In the 1994 study, German scientists at the University of Kiel’s Neurological Clinic compared peppermint oil and eucalyptus oil preparations agaisnt placebo. To keep the patients unaware of whether they were receiving the placebo or the oil remedy the researchers added trace amounts of peppermint simply to make the solutions smell similar. In the actual remedy a concentration of 10% peppermint oil to ethanol was used, or a combination of eucalyptus and peppermint oil.
Peppermint Oil Increases Cognitive Performance and Reduces Pain
What the researchers found was that in the 32 healthy subjects the combined eucalyptus and peppermint oil in ethanol increased cognitive performance and had a mucle-relaxant effect as well as aiding mental relaxation. It did not, however influence sensitivity to pain. The peppermint and ethanol solution did have a significant analgesic effect though, reducing the sensitivity to headache when applied to large areas of the forehead and temples using a small sponge.
Peppermint Oil as Good as Acetaminophen for Headaches
Confirming these findings some two years later, researchers at the same university compared the effectiveness of peppermeint oil (Oleum menthae piperitae) to paracetamol in the treatment of tension headaches. Using a double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover design (making this evidence of a very high quality), the researchers gave subjects either two placebo pills or two 500mg acetaminophen pill in addition to the topical application of either a 10% (to 90% ethanol) peppermint solution or an ethanol solution with trace amounts of peppermint oil as a blind.
A total of 41 patients were included in the study, with 164 headaches treated (four in each patient). Patients spanned an age range of 18-65 and both men and women were included. The headaches were tension-type headaches as classified by the IHS (International Headaches Society). The peppermint oil preparation was spread across the forehead and temples and the process repeated after 15 and 30 minutes. A headache diary recorded headache parameters 15, 30, 45 and 60 minutes later.
Peppermint Oil Reduces Headache Pain in 15 Minutes
The results of the study showed that a significant reduction in headache intensity occurred after just 15 minutes in those patients treated with peppermint oil, in contrast to the placebo. This clinically significant reduction in pain continued over the hour-long observation period. Acetaminophen was also effective against placebo but there was no significant difference between peppermint oil and acetaminophen for tension headaches. There was a slight, insignificant additive effect when both treatments were used together.
As no adverse effects were reported by the patients, this study appears to suggest that the use of peppermint oil is a viable alternative for common pain medication acetaminophen, when applied as a 10% solution with 90% ethanol and repeated at 15 and 30 minutes. Peppermint oil is also cost-effective and does not pose the same risks of liver damage and other issues that acetaminophen does.
How Does Peppermint Oil Work for Pain Relief
Now that we’ve seen some evidence that peppermint oil is effective for relieving tension headaches, it’s worth taking a look at the theories proposed to explain its efficacy. Once again, the researchers in Kiel provide us with the best answers so far. In a 1995 paper published in the journal Phytomedicine, Göbel et al, describe a number of potential mechanisms by which peppermint oil exerts an analgesic effect, namely that peppermint oil:
- Alters calcium channels in the cold-receptors of the skin, causing a cooling sensation
- Inhibits non-competitively 5-hydroxytryptophan and substance P induced smooth muscle contractin
- Significantly increases blood flow to teh area of application (i.e the forehead).
The last mechanism in this list has been observed using laser doppler to measure blood flow and the effect on calcium channels has also been observed in animal studies (Hills and Aaronson, 1991). In other animal research, peppermint oil has been found to affect the contractile response to acetylcholine, histamine, 5-hydroxytryptamine, and substance P (Heimes et al., 2010), providing a variety of potential pathways by which peppermint may exert an analgesic effct in both tension headaches and other pain conditions.
Peppermint Oil for Neck Pain
Most of the research on peppermint oil has focused either on tension headache relief or the relief of gastrointestinal symptoms such as pain, cramping and nausea. The evidence suggests a significant effect on these conditions when using peppermint oil externally and internally at appropriate doses. As yet, no clinical trials of peppermint oil for neck pain have been carried out although it may be safe to assume that the benefits of the natural oil for headaches could cross over to neck pain relief when the neck pain shares a similar etiology (cause).
Neck pain triggered by localized muscle tension, poor blood flow, and/or serotonin imbalances and substance P or acetylcholine overactivity may offer worthwhile targets for treatment with peppermint oil. Neck pain caused by more entrenched neck issues, such as cervical spinal stenosis linked to arthritis or degenerative disc disease is unlikely, however, to be effectively treated using peppermint oil.
For those suffering from tension headaches that then trigger neck pain through postural change and both musculoskeletal and emotional stress, rubbing a little peppermint oil across the forehead and temples every 15 minutes or so could allow you to reduce pain medications and significantly reduce pain. As always, make sure you consult a qualified medical professional rather than self-diagnosing or self-medicating for tension headaches and neck pain.
Once you’ve got the go-ahead, you might want to try the following for tension headache relief using peppermint oil:
Heimes, K., Hauk, F., Verspohl, E.J. (2010) Mode of action of peppermint oil and (-)-menthol with respect to 5-HT3 receptor subtypes: binding studies, cation uptake by receptor channels and contraction of isolated rat ileum. Phytotherapy Research, DOI : 10.1002/ptr.3316.
Hills, J.M., Aaronson, P.I. (1991) The mechanism of action of peppermint oil on gastrointestinal smooth muscle. An analysis using patch clamp electrophysiology and isolated tissue pharmacology in rabbit and guinea pig. Gastroenterology, Jul;101(1):55-65.
Göbel, H., Schmidt, G., Dworschak, M., Stolze, H., Heuss, D. (1995) Essential plant oils and headache mechanisms. Phytomedicine. 1995 Oct;2(2):93-102. doi: 10.1016/S0944-7113(11)80053-X.
Göbel, H., Fresenius, J., Heinze, A., Dworschak, M., Soyka, D. (1996) Effectiveness of Oleum menthae piperitae and paracetamol in therapy of headache of the tension type. Nervenarzt. Aug;67(8):672-81.
Göbel, H., Schmidt, G., Soyka, D. (1994) Effect of peppermint and eucalyptus oil preparations on neurophysiological and experimental algesimetric headache parameters. Cephalalgia. 1994;14:228–234.