PT Classroom - Introduction and Application of Essential Oils in Physical Therapy Practice ׀ by Diana Beilfuss, PT, MPT


Diana Beilfuss graduated from the school of Physical Therapy at University of Wisconsin - Madison in 2001. She has been practicing with Aurora Health Care for 16 years across multiple levels of care, including acute care, inpatient rehab, and home care. Diana has always been interested in natural approaches to wellness, and educated herself in application of essential oils starting in 2013. Diana believes that it’s critical for contemporary PTs to minimally have a comprehensive appreciation for both traditional and holistic approaches to patient care. Her website is, and she can be reached at

Introduction and Application of Essential Oils in PT Practice


Essential oils are plant-derived substances used in many aspects of health and wellness. These oils have long been popular among the holistically geared population; however, essential oils are now being incorporated more frequently into medical practices and health regimes that would otherwise include only traditional interventions. In an effort to bridge these two philosophies, it is important to understand the history of essential oils and how they differ from conventional medicines as you consider incorporating them into your personal and professional life.

A Brief History of Essential Oils
Essential oils have been used for health and medicinal purposes for thousands of years and across many ancient cultures, many of which were disconnected in geography and time. Nevertheless, numerous ancient essential oil users found that these natural remedies provide medicinal benefits. The use and effectiveness of essential oils are well-documented in ancient texts, archeology, and other literature across many regions around the world including Egypt (3000 B.C), China (2700 B.C), India (3000-2000 B.C.), Greece (400 B.C.), Rome (1st Century A.D.), Persia (1000 A.D.), Europe (Middle Ages), and France (1800’s – Present). All of these sources describe the medicinal effects of thousands of different plant extracts on countless people over time.

While a wealth of information exists from ancient sources, it was only recently translated and formalized into the modern era by scientists, doctors, and chemists in France in the 19th and 20th centuries. Pioneers include René-Maurice Gattefossé, Jean Valnet, Paul Belaiche, Jean-Claude Lapraz, Daniel Pénoël, and Pierre Franchomme, all whom re-invigorated the ancient use of essential oils and plant extracts, and re-framed their use into what is known today as "aromatherapy." The European Pharmacopoeia (Ph. Eur.) references the prescription of essential oils for certain medical conditions as a standard medical practice, and this is practiced routinely in German and France, with increasing prevalence in the U.K. Today, a PubMed search on “essential oils” will yield thousands of peer-reviewed studies supporting their benefits on health and wellness. In fact, it is plausible that there is more testing and documented results on uses of essential oils than traditional westernized medicines.

What are Essential Oils and how are They Used?
Essential oils are largely plant-based extracts. The International Organization for Standardization defines an essential oil as a product obtained from natural raw material. Common sources of essential oils include trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses. Essential oils are complex, volatile mixtures of certain secondary plant metabolites whose extracts are either actually used in, or used to inspire, modern drug compounds.

Essential oils do not travel throughout the vasculature of the plant and are not involved in primary metabolism focused on building plant tissue, producing energy and reproduction. Essential oils exist in secretary structures that are external to the plant, similar to sweat glands, and are there to help with repelling herbivores and parasites; killing bacteria, viruses, and other pests; attraction of animals and insect pollinators; UV protection; plant wound healing; and temperature regulation.

Essential oils are comprised of hundreds of structurally diverse molecules that work together synergistically in our cells. The research of biochemists and molecular biologists has uncovered a microcosm of the interactions that take place between essential oil constituents and the biomolecules that comprise our cells, as well as the interactions that take place between the constituents and bacteria, fungi, and viruses. The mechanism of action has been identified at the molecular level for certain constituents, and there is a great deal yet to discover. There is substantial research that connects the way essential oils work at the molecular level to the positive health effects observed at the physiological level.

The western medicine process dating back to the early 1800’s generally began by isolating and identifying singular plant-derived compounds and expanding with other ingredients. Indeed, morphine, codeine, atropine, ephedrine, quinine, aspirin, theobromine, and many others were all derived from natural plant sources. Continuing on to the 1900’s through today, this practice continues. Aspirin, for example, was created by scientists studying the nature of the bark of the willow tree. The active constituent in aspirin, salicylic acid, was derived from methyl salicylate, the natural phytochemical in the essential oil of willow bark. Because essential oils cannot be patented, many pharmaceutical drugs are created by copying the natural phytochemicals found in essential oils. While drug companies will add various other synthetics to modern products, the chemical diversity of naturally occurring molecules is impossible to reproduce artificially in a lab. Scripps Research Institute in Florida perhaps said it best when they noted that:

“Natural products remain the best sources of drugs and drug leads, and this remains true today …. Natural products possess enormous structural and chemical diversity that is unsurpassed by any synthetic libraries. About 40% of the chemical scaffolds found in natural products are absent in today’s medicinal chemistry repertoire. Natural products represent the richest source of novel molecular scaffolds and chemistry."

With this understanding of what oils are and how they are distinct of forms of western medicine, let's explore a few examples of how oil use is different than other forms of treatment used today. By way of an example, let's assume that someone is feeling pain due to increased inflammation in the body, which is due to some other root cause. Blocking a key enzyme that deals with the pain response is how pain medication works. This does nothing to fix the root cause of the inflammation. An essential oil is comprised of tens to hundreds of different molecules that work together synergistically. The total effect of these individual molecules interacting with the network has a much higher probability of restoring complete equilibrium and balance to the system than any single compound. Interactions at many different cellular targets from different directions is more likely to restore homeostasis or order to the system. Westernized medicine, however, is built around using one compound to control this entire network to restore balance. In the Western paradigm, it’s more likely that the one compound will shift the network to a new equilibrium that does not match the natural order in the cell, rather than restore it to the correct balance. This altered state that sets the interaction network into a new state of disequilibrium is how many unintended side-effects arise. Side effects are simply unavoidable when you attempt to control such a complex network at one location. The use of essential oils can help to provide many similar health benefits without the aforementioned side-effects.

How and Why Might you Implement Essential Oils into Your Personal and Professional Life?
There are many reasons to incorporate essential oils into daily life. Removing artificial scents and toxic ingredients from the home environment creates instrumental shifts in wellness. Essential oils have such an incredible number of uses that they have found themselves in many different household products, including cleaners, lotions, makeup, hygienic products, baby products, nutritional supplements, etc. Repeated exposure to harmful chemicals in conventional products leads to potentially dangerous toxic levels of these substances in our bodies through a process called bioaccumulation. Bioaccumulation occurs when an organism absorbs a substance at a rate faster than that at which the substance is lost by catabolism and excretion. Simply state, our livers and kidneys were not meant to process the large amount of toxins we are exposed to on a daily basis.

As physical therapists, consider the frequency of hand hygiene, including washing and applying sanitizer, or use treatment creams. Skin is our largest organ and much of what we put onto our skin is absorbed directly into our blood stream. In 2005, the Environmental Working Group published a combination of two studies that found toxic chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies born in the U.S. in the fall of 2004. They screened for more than 400 chemicals, and an astounding 287 toxins were detected within the umbilical cord blood of these newborns. Of these 287 chemicals, 217 were neurotoxins, and 208 are known to damage growth development or cause birth defects. Repetitive exposure of cleansers and creams to our skin should be minimized considering the skin provides access to the bloodstream.

Professionally, the well-being of both patients and therapists alike should be considered when taking steps to ensure health and wellness. The continual exposure of toxic products is not going to go unnoticed by our bodies indefinitely. Physical therapists should be aware that there are alternatives to conventional treatments. Patients will appreciate being offered a chemical free treatment option, or as an alternative option when conventional treatment is unsuccessful.

This narrative is not meant to suggest that western medicine should be abandoned. Conventional medicine is necessary in critical situations and saves many lives. Essential oils offer an alternative for certain applications, including for long term healing. As many practitioners have seen, conventional medicine all too often falls into symptom management, especially when it comes to chronic illnesses such as cancer, arthritis, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease. Essential oils are an alternative option and part of a movement to remove the toxic chemicals often found in consumer products and side-effects or shortcomings of conventional treatments. Essential oils provide a great option or supplement to a number of health and treatment options.

Quality of pure essential oils is another important aspect to understand, and while it’s mostly beyond the scope of this discussion, it’s important to note that 98% of essential oils are synthetic and adulterated with fillers and/or toxic chemicals. These oils not only have little to no therapeutic value, they can be toxic and dangerous to use. This leaves 2% of essential oils on the market that are authentic, meaning the plant ingredients are properly grown and properly distilled. It is crucial to do proper research and know from where your essential oils come.
In summary, essential oils are a natural, safe, and cost-effective therapy for a number of health concerns, and at the very least can be used as an adjunct to existing practices. Essential oils have been studied extensively and have been shown to demonstrate numerous benefits such as balancing hormones, boost immunity and fight infections, support digestion, boost energy levels, improve brain function, reduce emotional stress and anxiety, alleviate aches and pains, boost skin and hair health, reduce toxicity, relieve headaches and migraines, and promote restful sleep. Essential oils are also extremely versatile making a single oil be useful for dozens of different purposes. Here are some examples of some of the most commonly used essential oils.

Lavender essential oil is the most used essential oil in the world today, but the benefits of lavender were actually discovered over 2,500 years ago. Because of its powerful antioxidant, antimicrobial, sedative, calming and anti-depressive properties, lavender essential oil has been used both cosmetically and therapeutically for centuries. Lavender essential has been shown to reduce anxiety and emotional stress, protect against diabetes symptoms, improve brain function, help to heal burns and wounds, improve sleep, restore skin complexion and reduce acne, slow aging with powerful antioxidants, relieve pain and alleviate headaches.

Lemon essential oil has been used to treat a wide spectrum of health conditions for at least 1,000 years. Citrus plants are the main sources of benefit-rich essential oils because of their many uses in food and medicine. Lemon oil is one of the most popular citrus essential oils because of its versatility and powerful antioxidant properties. The health benefits of lemon essential oil have been well established scientifically. Lemon is best known for its ability to cleanse toxins from the body and it’s widely used to stimulate lymphatic drainage, rejuvenate energy, purify skin, and fight bacteria and fungi. Lemon essential oil also relieves nausea, improves digestion, nourishes skin, may promote weight loss, helps purify the body, boost oral health, relieves cough, stimulates lymphatic drainage, works as an antimicrobial agent, and may work as an anti-tumor agent.

Peppermint oil is one of the most versatile essential oils out there. It can be used aromatically, topically and internally to address a number of health concerns, from muscles aches and seasonal allergy symptoms, to low energy and digestive complaints. It’s also commonly used to boost energy levels and improve both skin and hair health. According to a review conducted by the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, peppermint has significant antimicrobial and antiviral activities. It also works as a strong antioxidant, displays anti-tumor actions in lab studies, shows anti-allergenic potential and pain-killing effects, helps to relax the gastrointestinal tract and may be chemopreventive. Peppermint oil relieves muscle and joint pain, provides respiratory benefits and seasonal allergy relief, increases energy and improves exercise performance, alleviates headaches, improves IBS symptoms, freshens breath and supports oral health, promotes hair growth, relieves itchiness and repels bugs naturally.

Modern scientific studies and current trends lean towards a more holistic approach to wellness. As practitioners, it is in our best interest to learn how these natural substances can offer effective treatment options to support our physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing simultaneously.


Last revised: June 25, 2018
by Diana Beilfuss, PT, MPT


ˇ Stewart, D. PhD, 2005. The Chemistry Of Essential Oils Made Simple. N A P S A C Reproductions.
ˇ Young, Gary D. 2001. Essential Oils Integrative Medical Guide: Building Immunity, Increasing Longevity, and Enhancing Mental Performance With Therapeutic-Grade Essential Oils. Life Sciences Press; 2nd edition
ˇ Corrigan, D. 2017. Accessed June 2018.
ˇ Essential Science Publishing, 2000. Essential Oils Desk Reference
ˇ Dr. Johnson, Scott, 2005. Evidence-Based Essential Oil Therapy: The Ultimate Guide to the Therapeutic and Clinical Application of Essential Oils. Scott A. Johnson Professional Writing Services, LLC; 1 edition

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