Can Aromatherapy Help Manage Tinnitus Symptoms?

various forms of aromatherapy

Aromatherapy has been used alongside essential oils for many years, though the precise applications of the practice and its limits have long been murky or uncertain. While many wellness spheres have touted the virtues of essential oils for years, many people have not looked into an essential oil practice or therapy as a potential alternative therapy for common ailments such as ear infections and poor blood circulation. That being said, can aromatherapy be used to relieve symptoms of tinnitus? First, let’s take a closer look at what exactly aromatherapy is, how essential oils interact with the body, and how to effectively relieve tinnitus symptoms.

What Is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy describes the practice of using essential oils either as a topical application or as an olfactory intervention of essential oils to benefit health. The therapeutic benefit of essential oils and scent has been evaluated for many years, as the practice has roots in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The tenets of TCM argue that the body is a series of energetic systems that require balance. The scent molecules in essential oils, according to practitioners, travel from olfactory nerves directly to the brain and have an impact on the amygdala, or the emotional center of the brain. When applied topically, essential oils can actually be absorbed by the skin, in order to more directly impact the body.

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Essential oils are typically used with aromatherapy, though there are other uses and applications for essential oils, as well. Essential oils are concentrated liquids derived from plant extracts, and can be made in many different ways – but all require a large amount of plant matter to distill; 0.2 ml of basil essential oil, for instance, can require 100 g of basil leaves. For that reason, many essential oils are not recommended for direct application, and should instead be applied with a carrier oil.

Clinical trials have looked at whether essential oils are able to alleviate common ailments such as anxiety, depression, nausea, insomnia, low appetite, and dry mouth. The clinical evidence for efficacy is varied according to the study and the essential oil in question, but most researchers have determined that essential oils do not have enough support to encourage therapeutic use. Because the results of clinical evidence remain varied, with some indicating benefits to use and others showing no improvement to symptoms at all, aromatherapy is not currently recognized as a therapeutic intervention.

Types Of Essential Oils And Reported Health Benefits

Hands holding a variety of essential oil bottles

There are essential oils available from most plant materials, with some notable exceptions being items like vanilla, which is generally not available for use as an essential oil. While most plant materials can be used as essential oils, there are several “heavy hitters” that have been consistently identified as entrants into the realm of health and wellness. These include:

  • Peppermint oil. With anti-inflammatory properties, peppermint oil is said to ease headaches, fight against fatigue, lift mood, and support memory.
  • Lavender oil. Lavender essential oil is said to ease stress, soothe pain, and help support sleep.
  • Tea tree oil. Tea tree oil is said to have antiseptic and antifungal properties, and has been used in formulas for acne and athlete’s foot.
  • Frankincense oil. Frankincense has been used as a support for inflammation, improved mood, and improved sleep.
  • Eucalyptus oil. This oil has long been used in formulas for cold symptoms and pain relief, though it is always diluted, as it can be uncomfortable for sensitive mucous membranes when used directly.
  • Lemon balm oil. Lemon balm oil has been said to reduce anxiety and depression symptoms, reduce pain and nausea, and kill bacteria.
  • Lemongrass oil. Lemongrass has also been tied to reductions in anxiety and depression, and has also been said to reduce pain and nausea and kill bacteria.
  • Bitter orange oil. Bitter orange essential oil is said to kill bacteria, reduce anxiety, and reduce pain.
  • Rosemary oil. Rosemary essential oil is said to improve brain function, promote hair growth, reduce pain and stress, and improve blood vessels function or blood circulation.
  • Cedarwood oil. Cedarwood oil is said to help sleep and anxiety and ward off insects.
  • Bergamot oil. Bergamot has claims to reduce anxiety, improve general mood, and even lower blood pressure.
  • Clary sage oil. Clary sage has been said to aid hormone function and production.

Other essential oils include basil oil, cypress oil, helichrysum oil, ginger oil, rose oil, juniper oil, thyme oil, lilies oil, cajeput oil, and more. Common oils for medicinal use that are not essential oils include mustard oil, oregano oil, onion oil, and garlic oil. Most of these should not be administered topically without a carrier oil to prevent skin irritation or discomfort.

Although there is limited research to support the use of essential oils medicinally or to determine whether essential oils work, the most common conditions purported to experience relief through essential oil use include mood, attention, sleep, bacteria/fungi/viruses, headaches, inflammation, nausea, stress, anxiety, and pain.

Tinnitus: A Definition

Tinnitus is a hearing condition in which someone hears a fluctuating or persistent ringing, buzzing, rushing, or other phantom sound that is heard by the individual with tinnitus alone. Tinnitus can occur in one or both ears, and can vary in its severity. Although the most common underlying cause of tinnitus is hearing loss–sensorineural hearing loss of the inner ear, to be precise–there are countless other types of hearing loss that can lead to phantom noise development.

There are several types of tinnitus. Objective tinnitus describes a type of the condition in which the source of the tinnitus is measurable or observable, as is the case with pulsatile tinnitus, or tinnitus that comes as a result of cardiovascular dysfunction. Subjective tinnitus is a type of the condition in which the subject hears the sounds and sensations, but it cannot be heard by a hearing professional or medical professional.

Although there is no known cure for tinnitus, there are numerous interventions that have been shown to consistently help relieve symptoms of tinnitus. To address tinnitus, the following tinnitus treatments are considered ideal:

  • Identifying underlying causes. An ear infection has the potential to trigger tinnitus, as inflammation within the ears can lead to phantom sound development. Ear infections can lead to tinnitus as a result of damage to or inflammation within the ear canal, thereby clouding the auditory pathway.
  • Hearing aids. Hearing aids are a common treatment option for hearing loss, but they are also useful for tinnitus, as they allow tinnitus patients to hear more effectively and potentially overpower the volume of tinnitus.
  • Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT). Tinnitus Retraining Therapy is a therapy that combines sound therapy and counseling, to help tinnitus patients suppress symptoms while improving emotional or mental responses to symptoms.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT, while not a direct treatment for tinnitus, does help relieve some of the stress and anxiety that is so common to tinnitus, as it helps reframe emotional and mental responses to symptom onset.
  • Sound Therapy. Sound therapy is an intervention that seeks to reduce the effects of tinnitus by essentially “masking” tinnitus sounds through the use of white noise, pink noise, or another type of background noise.
  • Noise Exposure Prevention. Ear plugs can be used to prevent exposure to loud noises, which can lead to tinnitus onset.

These are the most widely recognized interventions for tinnitus, but there are those who suggest that aromatherapy can help tinnitus symptoms.

Aromatherapy For Tinnitus Relief

Lavender essential oils

Several advertisements suggest that tinnitus can be cured via aromatherapy using essential oils, but there is currently no evidence based research to support the claim. Claims suggesting that tinnitus can be healed or even directly treated with essential oils are not based on clinical evidence, as plant oils (and herbal products in general) are classified by the FDA as food, rather than medicine. This means that there is not a legal requirement for companies to support their claims regarding essential oil use, nor is it required to study for safety and efficacy, including safety for pregnant or nursing women. The lack of FDA regulation means that companies can make claims for use freely, even when those claims are misleading.

At present, the US Food and Drug Administration has not approved any essential oil to treat tinnitus. If, therefore, products claim to be a “cure,” that is typically a good reason to be suspicious. Many of these claims are made with the disclaimer “statements have not been evaluated by the FDA” to make sure that they are not legally liable for any issues that may arise, an there are currently no published articles in peer-reviewed journals determining that any essential oil can be effective for relief from tinnitus.

Similar claims that have not been substantiated include improved blood circulation or blood pressure, improvements to hearing loss, decreases in vertigo symptoms, and more.

Studies Supporting Aromatherapy For Stress

While aromatherapy is not recommended for use as a tinnitus intervention, there are studies that support the claim that aromatherapy can help reduce stress. Because stress is a common cause of or exacerbating factor for tinnitus flare ups, aromatherapy has the potential to indirectly help tinnitus, by improving stress responses or reducing anxiety. Aromatherapy can be used as an alternative medicine or as a complement to traditional care. Clinical aromatherapy has been beneficial for the management of symptoms such as pain, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, depression, insomnia, agitation, and end of life symptoms. Note that these are all symptoms rather than root causes or syndromes, and that aromatherapy is best used as a supplement rather than a direct line of treatment.

Aromatherapy was evaluated as an intervention for stress responses in adolescents. In the study, the students who received aromatherapy reported significantly lower stress responses than those who received a placebo. Although this study did not evaluate tinnitus, the links between tinnitus and stress suggest that aromatherapy could mitigate one of the contributing factors that can lead to or intensity existing tinnitus.

Risks Of Essential Oils

Essential oils should never be put directly in the ear canal, as it could lead to ear infections or discomfort and pain. Direct application without dilution can irritate skin exposed to the oil. Skin irritation is typically avoided using a carrier oil like coconut or olive oil. There are far fewer risks associated with essential oils when they are inhaled or diffused.

Arm with a skin rash

Some oils should be avoided by people with a history of cardiac disease or dysfunction, diabetes, or pregnant or nursing women. Before using an oil, check all warnings and recommended uses. Because some oils are flammable and can cause severe reactions like contact dermatitis, all oils should be used sparingly when they are topically applied. Lemon oil, for instance, can be phototoxic, which means that placing it on skin can increase the likelihood of severe sunburn. Some are also considered toxic when taken orally. It is therefore important to exercise caution, and contact a healthcare professional if an allergic reaction develops or you exhibit harmful symptoms following essential oil use, whether it is simple aromatherapy or topical application.

Essential oils are generally considered safe when used correctly, but they are considered a complement to tried and true tinnitus treatments at best. Before adding essential oils for stress relief to your tinnitus repertoire, consult with your healthcare professional to prevent any potential issues or reactions. 

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