Herbs & Aromatherapy as Anti-Inflammatories

Easing Aches and Pains

By Jeanne Rose

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, April/May 2001.

For soreness, aches and pains associated with exercise, some people use muscle rubs (often medicinal-smelling), aspirin or other over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, while others just tough it out. These remedies can be quite costly, as well as having unpleasant side effects. Fortunately, these are not the only options. Herbs and their volatile aromatic oils — essential oils — can be useful in relieving the aches and pains of inflammation. These remedies are simple to make, effective, without side effects when properly used, and in the long run are much less costly than OTC remedies.

As with most holistic therapies, the goals of using herbs or essential oils are well-being and prevention, rather than restoration after the damage is done. Of course, the best recommendation to avoid inflammation is proper stretching before exercise and warming up rather than diving right into strenuous training. AromaHerbal treatments (a combination of herbs and essential oils) can be part of a daily routine to inhibit cramps associated with a vigorous workout, as well as to relieve those aches and pains when they do occur.

Herbs and essential oils can be used to reduce pain and inflammation, but are most effective when used synergistically in baths and massage oils.

AromaHerbal Treatments for Muscle Pain

A variety of herbs and essential oils can be used for pain and inflammation associated with exercise and sports,. The are also are often recommended for pain and inflammation associated with rheumatism and arthritis.

Massage Treatments — To create an aromatic massage treatment, start with a base oil, such as almond oil, corn oil, soy oil or any other vegetable oil. Add 10 drops essential oil to each ounce of base oil.

For a massage oil which uses herbs and essential oils synergistically for an AromaHerbal treatment, use an herbal-infused base oil with essential oils added as described above, or simmer 1–4 ounces of mixed herbs in one quart base oil for 10–20 minutes. Cool and strain. When needed, pour one ounce of the herbal oil into a container and add 10 drops of essential oil to each ounce of base substance. Make only one ounce at a time.

Please note: Essential oils should always be diluted in the carrier substance (water, oil, alcohol) before use and should never be used near the eyes.

Baths and Compresses — AromaHerbal massage oils and lotions are used in conjunction with healing herbal baths and compresses. These are made by heating herbs in water and allowing them to soak (steep) so the healing properties are infused into the water. The herbs are then strained and the resulting liquid is appropriately called an herbal infusion. For herbal baths, the herbal infusion is poured into a tub of warm water. A soak of at least 25 minutes is recommended. For compresses, a clean towel is soaked in the herbal infusion and applied to sore body parts. The towel is resoaked when it becomes cool. The herbs, left over from the making of an infusion, could also be applied to the sore area and covered with a towel soaked in hot water. When using essential oils in a bath or compress, up to 10 drops can be added to a bath, or up to five drops added to warm water for a compress.

Response to treatments will vary as will the length of time before results are noticed. Individual response has much to do with the extent of the injury and overall health of the individual. As always, a diet of natural foods and a routine of AromaHerbal care are beneficial to create an atmosphere for rapid healing.

AromaHerbal Care for Active People

Before a workout or exercise session, give yourself a brisk, pre-sports rub down with a stimulating massage oil or lotion. Essential oils of Peppermint, Rosemary, Pine and/or Eucalyptus are effective mixed with vegetable oil or alcohol for an alcohol rub. The essential oils of Pine, Rosemary and Eucalyptus also benefit the respiratory system. If you will be involved in vigorous cardiovascular exercise, these essential oils could have the added benefit of helping to heal and strengthen the respiratory system while you work out.

You may like to add two drops of stimulating essential oils such as Rosemary and Birch to a palm-full of shower gel for your after-workout shower. After a warm shower, but before drying off, rub the body with massage oil infused with essential oils. Give special attention to any sore spots, massaging them a bit longer with the oil. Pat dry.

In the evening, soak in a tub to which you have added an infusion of anti-inflammatory and analgesic herbs. Simmer 1–4 ounces of herbs in one quart of water. Infuse 10 minutes. Strain the liquid into a tub of very warm water. Use the herbs as a compress on any especially sore muscles or toss them into the garden to feed your plants. Soak in the herbal infusion for at least 20 minutes.

Formulas for Aches and Pains


Pain-Killing Formula for Aching Body Parts*

Use externally for arthritis, aching joints, muscles, sprains, strains, football knees, tennis elbows, etc.

8 oz Fresh Cayenne or Habanero Chile Pepper, chopped, or 6 oz dry chopped Chile Pepper
1 quart Olive Oil
4 oz Fresh Rosemary leaf herb or 3 oz dry Rosemary leaf
4 oz Fresh Comfrey root herb, finely sliced or chopped, or 2 oz dry Comfrey root herb soaked in 2 oz boiling water for 20 minutes

Bring the above ingredients to a low boil, turn down heat and simmer gently for four hours in a non-metal pot or double boiler. Turn off heat and cool for four hours. Repeat this process at least three times. Allow enough time for the heat to extract all the active and pain-killing ingredients from the herbs. Intermittent heating and cooling will accomplish this more effectively than one long cooking session. When the oil has gone from yellow to green and then to a nice persimmon-colored red, put the contents into a blender and blend for 20 seconds. Heat again and cool. When cool enough to handle, strain carefully through a sieve that has been lined with silk or a panty hose leg.

Heat together one quart of the Chile Pepper infused oil and 6 oz beeswax or 8 oz solid Cocoa butter until the solidifier is melted. Stir thoroughly, and add 20 drops Lavender oil, 20 drops Marjoram essential oil, 20 drops Frankincense essential oil and 20 drops Eucalyptus essential oil. Stir together and bottle in flat cream-type jars that can hold 4 oz of cream. Makes 8 jars.

Massage Oil for Muscle Cramps and Pain

Aromatherapist John Steele recommends a blend of the following oils:
3 drops Chamomile
3 drops Birch
3 drops Rosemary or Coriander
8 drops Lavender

Add the blend to 1/2 oz base oil. Massage after warm bath.

Chamomile Lotion

Add 1 handful of Chamomile flowers to 4 oz vegetable oil. Infuse one week. Add essential oil of Chamamaelum nobile, 10 drops to every ounce of herbal infusion. Use this in your evening massage.

Rejuvenating Oil**

1 oz Ginseng root herb
1 oz Comfrey root herb
1 oz Rosemary leaf herb
1 oz Other analgesic herb

Essential oils of Rosemary, Lavender or other essential oil
Place 2 oz of mixed herbs in a pot and pour 1/2 cup dry white wine over them. Cover and let sit a couple of hours. Add 2 quarts vegetable oil. Put on low heat; bring to simmer until wine has cooked away (you will begin to smell herbs instead of wine). Be careful not to overcook – you will know if you smell burned oil. Let the oil cool in pot and strain through cheesecloth or muslin. Let oil settle. In about a week there will be a slight separation at the bottom of the container. Decant the clear oil into another clean container and discard the residue. Add 1/2 to 1 ounce essential oil.

Herbal Massage Oil

Mary Bove, a naturopathic physician, recommends:
1 oz Cramp Bark herb,
1/2 oz Lobelia herb,
1/4 oz Willowbark herb or Wintergreen herb used in tincture form as an analgesic and anti-inflammatory

Bove recommends tinctures of the herbs be poured into 1 cup base oil. The herbs could also be used to make a massage oil according to the Jeanne Rose method. (See recipe for “Rejuvenating Massage Oil.”)


Bath for Aching Joints***

Chamomile flowers herb, Sage leaves herb, Comfrey root herb, Tansy herb, Myrtle Berries herb.
Use one handful of each simmered in a quart of water 10-20 minutes. Strain into warm bath.

Muscle Relaxing Bath***

2 oz Sassafras bark herb
1 oz Burdock root herb
1 oz Mugwort herb
1 oz Agrimony herb
1 oz Comfrey leaf herb
1 oz Sage leaf herb
Use 1 oz mixed herbs per bath.


Compress for Aching Joints and Bones

Meadowsweet herb, Melilot herb and Wormwood herb
Pour 1 cup boiling water over 1/4 oz each Melilot herb, Meadowsweet herb and Wormwood herb. When cool enough to use, make a compress (soak a natural fiber cloth in the fluid) and apply to the aching part.

Jeanne Rose is an internationally-known teacher and author of 16 books on aromatherapy and herbalism, and has created two home-study courses in these areas. She has made her home in San Francisco for 30 years and is working on an herbal autobiography. For more information, contact the Institute for Aromatic Study at 415/564-6785.

* Rose, Jeanne, The Aromatherapy Book: Applications & Inhalations. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 1995.
** Rose, Jeanne, Jeanne Rose’s Herbal Body Book. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 1973.
*** Rose, Jeanne, Herbs & Things. Perigee Books, New York, 1972.