Aromatherapy essential oils for repetitive strain injury (RSI)

The NHS state that repetitive strain injury (RSI) is a “general term used to describe the pain felt in muscles, nerves and tendons caused by repetitive movement and overuse”. It generally affects forearms, elbows, wrists, hands, neck and shoulders.  

Symptoms of RSI

The symptoms of RSI may include pain, aching, tenderness, stiffness, and weakness.  Symptoms can be mild but may get more severe over time.  Initially, the symptoms may only be present whilst carrying out a specific repetitive action.  However, the symptoms of RSI can become more constant and discomfort may, therefore, be experienced over a longer duration.  There may also be swelling in the affected area.  If you think you have symptoms of RSI, it is advisable to speak to your G.P. in the first instance, who will want to rule out other possible causes.  It is likely that RSI will be diagnosed when symptoms worsen when you are doing a repetitive task and are alleviated when you stop doing it.  If you think your symptoms could be work-related, I suggest letting your employer know, who will possibly refer you to occupational health.  Sometimes modifying your tasks can relieve symptoms.  You may, for instance, know what is aggravating the problem and can then do the task differently or limit the time spent doing it. If this is not possible, it can help to do some simple stretching exercises, but I would recommend seeking advice in the first instance. 

It is important to remember that pain is felt due to the brain's response to neural and hormonal changes in the body because of damage, disease or injury.  Signals from damage or injury are picked up by sensory receptors in nerve endings.  The nerves then transmit the signal via the nerves leading from the injury to the spinal cord, then into the brain where the signal is interpreted as pain.  Pain can, therefore, be regarded as a self-protective mechanism which stops us from continuing to use the injured part and ensuring we rest it.  

Orthodox treatment options

Possible treatment options for RSI include:

  • Pain-relieving medication
  • Cold packs, elastic supports or a splint
  • Physiotherapy 

Complementary health therapies treatment options

Aromatherapy treatment may help alleviate the painful symptoms of RSI. If you decide to have private treatment, make sure your therapist is registered with a professionally recognised organization, such as the Federation of Holistic Therapists (FHT) or International Federation of Aromatherapists (IFA).  I would advise visiting their websites to find suitably qualified therapists in your area. Alternatively, you may want to try gently self-massaging the affected area using a therapeutic aromatherapy oil such as the ones suggested below. 

The action of rubbing a painful area does seem to reduce the pain, and this is possibly because our nerve pathways are being stimulated to interrupt the pain signal to the brain.  Self-massage may provide short-term relief from pain because there is also an increase of endorphins released into the bloodstream because of the stimulation, and these hormones are natural pain killers  Nonetheless, as mentioned above, pain indicates damage, so self-massaging inflamed sites should be done with a lot of care.

Using essential oils in compresses is another traditional method for reducing pain and stiffness and involves wetting a folded piece of material such as muslin or a towel and applying it to the affected area.  I would recommend using both hot and cold compresses, both of which have specific benefits which include increasing circulation and reducing pain and congestion in the affected area.  

How do compresses work

Hot compresses work by increasing the body temperature of the affected area, causing the blood capillaries to dilate.  This has the effect of bringing more blood and nutrients to the area whilst removing cellular debris and waste products.  Cold compresses, on the other hand, cause the blood capillaries to contract.  This has the effect of reducing blood to the area, bleeding into the affected tissues and prevents or reduces swelling, muscle pain and spasm.  The cold compress also numbs the area which helps to reduce pain.  

What symptoms are hot compresses best suited to?

  • Muscle tension/tightness
  • Chronic pain with no inflammation or swelling

Note: When using hot compresses consider such things as heart disease, diabetes, peripheral vascular disease, and open wounds.

What conditions are cold compresses best suited to?

  • Immediate treatment of soft tissue injuries, and in later rehabilitation

Note: when using cold compresses consider such things as Raynaud’s Phenomenon and cold hypersensitivity.

How do you create a hot and cold compress?

To make a hot compress, take about 100ml of hot water, as warm as can be tolerated comfortably, and add between 5-6 drops of appropriate essential oils.  Place a folded piece of material on top of the water and let it soak up the water and oils. Next wring out the excess water and place it over the area to be treated.  The warm compress may be covered with cling film and a towel placed on top.  The compress should be replaced with a new compress as soon as it has cooled to body temperature.

A cold compress is made exactly the same as the hot compress, but iced or refrigerated water is used instead of the hot water, and the compress is replaced when it has warmed up to body temperature – in any event, a cold compress should not be left on the affected area for more than 10 minutes.

Essential oils recommended for repetitive strain

The chart below provides examples of essential oils which may be used to alleviate the symptoms of repetitive strain injury.  

Top NotesMiddle NotesBase Notes
BasilRoman ChamomileBenzoin
Lemon EucalyptusLavender
Eucalyptus smithiiSweet Marjoram
Sweet Thyme (ct. Linalol)

When selecting the essential oils, the aim is to create a synergistic blend in which the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts.  The blend should meet your needs but not produce sensitivity or be contra-indicated for your use. For example, whilst Sweet Marjoram may be used to alleviate pain and discomfort, it should be avoided in pregnancy.  The aroma of the oils is not usually an important consideration in the treatment of physical conditions such as RSI, as the main aim is to alleviate any pain and discomfort, and oils possessing analgesic properties such as Rosemary would be indicated for use.  Sometimes, however, the physical condition may cause other issues such as disturbed sleep.  In these cases, it is important to consider the aroma as well as both the psychological and physical properties of the oil, as Lavender would then be a better choice in this instance.  This is one reason why Lavender is indicated for many conditions, as it possesses so many different properties such as: sedative, anti-inflammatory, analgesic to name but a few.  While the synergy of essential oils will be covered in more depth in a later article, a very simple way to achieve a synergistic, balanced blend is to select a top, middle and base essential oil and use drops in the of ratio 4:8:2.  Alternatively, you may wish to try out one of the blends below.

Aromatherapy blend 1

  • 2 drops of Black Pepper
  • 4 drops of Lavender
  • 1 drop of Ginger

Aromatherapy blend 2

  • 2 drops of Eucalyptus smithii
  • 4 drops of Rosemary
  • 1 drop of Benzoin

If using the above blends for massage, dilute first in 14ml of Arnica infused oil.

Of course, if you prefer a pre-blended option you could try our Muscles Massage Oil or Massage Wax which contain Clary Sage, Sweet Marjoram, Lavender and Rosemary. 

Finally, any type of constant pain can cause low mood, and essential oils can play an invaluable role in lifting the spirits.  For example, placing a few drops of Bergamot essential oil into a burner or diffuser, or a couple of drops on a tissue and sniffing as required, is like inhaling sunshine from a bottle.

Christine Fisk
Consultant Aromatherapist

Disclaimer & Safety Advice

Read other articles by Christine Fisk


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