Essential Blends

Harness the Power of Aromatherapy Synergies for the Muscular System

By Anne Williams

Key Point

• When essential oils are combined properly and diluted in a massage lubricant, they can expand the effects of massage.

Author’s note: The plant products used in aromatherapy include essential oils, essences, absolutes, and CO2 extracts, but we’ll use the term essential oil for ease of communication. Use pure oils free of synthetics and review safety data for any oils you use in massage sessions.

Most massage therapists are familiar with aromatherapy, defined as the art and science of using essential oils and related plant products for physical, psychological, and spiritual wellness. Aromatherapy synergy is a combination of essential oils with complementary therapeutic effects formulated to meet specific wellness goals. By first understanding the power of aromatherapy synergies, we can then use our knowledge to combine specific essential oils, add them to massage lubricants, and subsequently turn them into potent therapeutic formulations that extend and empower the positive effects of massage therapy. 

Understanding the Effects of Essential Oils

The effects of aromatherapy comprise the changes that occur in the bodies, minds, emotions, and spirits of people exposed to essential oils. The effects of essential oils are the result of the pharmacological properties of their molecules. Researchers have identified more than 3,000 molecules in essential oils that produce significant effects encompassing every body system.1 

• Physiological effects are changes that occur in body tissues, organs, systems, or functions from exposure to the natural chemicals in essential oils. Topical applications of essential oils cause physiological effects because essential oils absorb through the skin’s layers to enter the bloodstream’s capillary network.2

• Psychological effects are changes that occur in people’s minds, emotions, and behaviors from exposure to essential oils. Inhaled essential oils trigger the limbic system, affecting stress levels, cognitive processes, brain chemistry, behavior, perception, and emotional states. 

Spiritual effects are changes that occur in humans in response to the cultural, mythological, mystical, and symbolic associations they make with plants and aromas. For example, many people associate roses with love and romance. Smelling roses may trigger you to have a moment where you reflect on the person you love. 

Combined effects are mingled physiological, psychological, and spiritual effects of aromatherapy application. Even if the intent of aromatherapy application is the reduction of muscular spasms (as an example), the person receiving the aromatherapy still inhales the oils and will likely also experience psychological effects. 

the Power of Synergy 

Synergy is when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and those parts are mutually enhancing. Synergies in aromatherapy are essential oils working together to improve wellness. 

Essential oils with the same therapeutic properties often elicit their effects via unique modes of action. In other words, each oil approaches a pathogen or physical condition differently, and these differences expand the scope of therapeutic benefits attainable through a blend. 

For example, imagine you’ve been showering at your gym and picked up athlete’s foot. You identify several essential oils that produce antifungal effects to destroy fungal pathogens or suppress their growth. You pick three antifungal oils and combine them, knowing each will demonstrate a different action against the fungus. Oil A reduces itching while disrupting the life cycle of fungal pathogens; Oil B cools heat and inflammation in the tissue and creates an environment where fungal pathogens find it challenging to reproduce; and Oil C kills several species of fungal pathogens on contact. Your combination of oils works better and faster than one oil acting alone.  

Practitioners also choose essential oils with different but complementary actions. For example, let’s say you want to create a synergy to treat chronic stress. You choose silver fir (Abies alba) for its alternative action, which helps the body regain balanced function. You add sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana) for its nervine qualities, which strengthen and support the nervous system. You add lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) for its restorative properties, which help the body recover from cortisol poisoning related to prolonged stress and stress-related exhaustion. These three oils working together are more effective at reducing stress than any one of the oils working alone. 

Essential Oils for the Musculoskeletal System 

Understanding the effects of essential oils and the power of formulating them into synergies allows us to make blends for the musculoskeletal system. First, we want to identify essential oils that affect the muscular system or have related effects on the nervous system, as shown in the following list. Bolded oils produce potent effects but should be used with caution. 

• Analgesic—reduces pain sensations, which is valuable for sprains, strains, tendon pathologies, chronic pain conditions, headaches, or sore muscles and joints. Essential oils include bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), black pepper (Piper nigrum), cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), clove bud (Syzygium aromaticum), eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus), German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), ginger (Zingiber officinale), lavender, nutmeg (Myristica fragrans), peppermint, ravintsara (Cinnamomum camphora), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), silver fir, sweet birch, sweet marjoram, turmeric, white camphor (Cinnamomum camphora), and wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens). 

• Anesthetic—causes numbing. We might use anesthetics to reduce acute pain. Essential oils include peppermint, sweet birch, and wintergreen.  

• Anti-inflammatory—reduces inflammation or inhibits the inflammatory response (valuable for soft-tissue injury, tendon pathologies, pain, and inflamed joints). Essential oils include blue cypress (Callitris columellaris), cypress (Cupressus sempervirens), frankincense (Boswellia sacra), German chamomile, helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum), lavender, myrrh, Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), rose (Rosa x damascena), sweet birch, turmeric (Curcuma longa), wintergreen, and yarrow (Achillea millefolium). 

• Antineuralgic—reduces or relieves pain sensations from irritated, compressed, or damaged nerves (useful for trapped nerves or neuralgia). Essential oils include clove bud, eucalyptus, ginger, helichrysum, nutmeg, peppermint, sweet birch, white camphor, and wintergreen. 

• Antispasmodic—reduces or prevents spasms in skeletal muscle (valuable for muscle guarding and muscle spasm). Essential oils include Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica), bergamot (Citrus bergamia), black pepper, black spruce (Picea mariana), clary sage (Salvia sclarea), ginger, lavender, nutmeg, pine, Roman chamomile, silver fir, sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), sweet birch, sweet fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), sweet marjoram, and wintergreen. 

• Muscle stimulant—stimulates muscle tissue, increasing tone and health (valuable for muscle weakness or atrophy). Essential oils include bay laurel, black pepper, cypress, elemi (Canarium luzonicum), eucalyptus, geranium (Pelargonium graveolens), ginger, lemon (Citrus limon), nutmeg, rosemary, and white camphor. 

• Substance P inhibitor—inhibits the production of substance P (beneficial for soft-tissue injury or pain). Essential oils include bay laurel, bergamot, clove bud, eucalyptus, grapefruit (Citrus paradisi), lemon, nutmeg, peppermint, and rosemary.

A Closer Look at Analgesics

When we look at a list of effects and essential oils, we might think we can add four or five to a massage lubricant and slather it over a client with good results; if you’re working with a low concentration of 12–24 drops of essential oil diluted in an ounce or more of massage lubricant, you’re correct. Even with minimal experience, you’ll get decent results without adverse effects. 

Experienced aromatherapists understand, however, that there are distinct physiological mechanisms behind these effects and that each essential oil produces effects through its chemical composition. Let’s look at the powerful analgesic oils, for example, to explore the mechanisms that produce pain-relieving effects. 

Clove Bud

Clove bud essential oil contains 70–85 percent eugenol, which studies show blocks the conduction of action potentials in peripheral nerves so fewer pain signals reach the brain.3 There is also evidence that inhaled clove bud oil acts on opioid receptors, causing a feeling of ease and relaxation that makes it easier for people to cope with painful conditions.4 Unfortunately, clove bud oil is a dermal irritant and causes skin reactions, so only use it at low concentrations on people who don’t report sensitive skin.

Sweet Birch and Wintergreen

Sweet birch and wintergreen essential oils are chemically simple (rare in aromatherapy) with both containing 98 percent methyl salicylate. The body metabolizes methyl salicylate into salicylic acid, a well-known nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that reduces pain and inflammation and has a tissue-numbing anesthetic effect. 

Most massage therapists recognize methyl salicylate because it is the active ingredient in topical sports recovery and pain rubs. Unfortunately, methyl salicylate is poisonous if ingested and toxic if too much is absorbed through the skin. In one case in 2007, a 17-year-old cross-country runner died after absorbing methyl salicylate through the excessive use of a topical muscle-pain product.5 

But if we’re cautious and only add 5 or 6 drops of sweet birch or wintergreen to a massage lubricant, we’ll be impressed by the results. These oils are also anesthetic, antineuralgic, anti-inflammatory, and antispasmodic, meaning they have a broad spectrum of action on the musculoskeletal system. Topical applications disrupt the pain-spasm-pain cycle and reduce protective muscle guarding to support rehabilitation from soft-tissue injury. We can use these oils with good results for the acute, sub-acute, and chronic stages of tissue repair. 


Nutmeg has a very different chemical makeup from clove but works via the same mechanism by blocking the conduction of action potentials in peripheral nerves.6 In research, nutmeg demonstrates potent Substance P inhibition.7 Substance P is a neuropeptide that relays unpleasant sensory information to the brain. 

Nutmeg contains a psychoactive chemical called myristicin, whose chemical structure shares similarities with mescaline, amphetamine, and ecstasy (MDMA). While its effects are mild, it gives people a sense of ease and expansion that can help those coping with chronic pain conditions.8


Peppermint essential oil has a cooling, numbing, analgesic effect produced by the chemical menthol (35–50 percent). Most people have experienced peppermint’s effects in foot balms or pain rubs—the reason peppermint feels cool is that menthol stimulates the thermoreceptors for cold. At the same time, it acts as a vasodilator and stimulates local blood circulation. So, an area can feel cool and look pink from increased blood flow simultaneously. 

You won’t want to use peppermint in massage lubricants you plan to apply to the whole body because it causes clients to feel cold and uncomfortable on the massage table and potentially nauseated after the session. Instead, apply diluted peppermint to a local area of pain, like the posterior neck, shoulder, elbow, or lower back. Peppermint makes an excellent spot treatment for painful joints or neuralgia. 

Peppermint is powerful and too stimulating for children aged 10 years and younger. Avoid the use of peppermint on clients living in homes with infants, as menthol fumes can cause transient respiratory arrest and a drop in the respiratory rate of infants. Peppermint also proves too stimulating for older adults who have cardiac conditions, are frail, or are on multiple medications. 

Essential Oils Containing 1,8 Cineole 

Because of its value for the respiratory system and its neurostimulating qualities, 1,8 cineole is one of the world’s most widely researched natural chemicals. Recent investigations into the benefits of 1,8 cineole reveal that this compound is a rare, natural antagonist of ion channels that carry pain signals.9

Many essential oils contain some 1,8 cineole but eucalyptus (60–85 percent), ravintsara (54–58 percent), bay laurel (38–54 percent), rosemary cineole chemotype grown in Morocco (35–45 percent), and cardamom (28–35 percent) have significant 1,8 cineole in their chemistry, giving them potent analgesic effects. While 1,8 cineole is arguably milder than eugenol (clove) and methyl salicylate (birch and wintergreen), we must still use it cautiously. It is poisonous if ingested, and high concentrations applied topically could cause skin irritation and feelings of nausea.

Ravintsara and White Camphor 

Ravintsara owes half of its analgesic properties to
1,8 cineole and half to other analgesic chemicals.
Of 54 total chemical components, 98 percent exhibit analgesic properties.  

Ravintsara comes from the leaves of Cinnamomum camphora when the tree is grown in Madagascar. The same tree grown in China produces the essential oil we call white camphor, which is distilled from the wood and fractionated to remove safrole. Safrole is carcinogenic (cancer-causing) and toxic to the liver, which is why we don’t use the safrole-containing brown or yellow fractions of camphor oil therapeutically. 

White camphor acts as a circulatory stimulant and strong antispasmodic while boasting a uniquely dry, powdery, peppery, and citrusy aroma with undertones of mint and herbs. White camphor should be used with caution because, like all powerful therapeutic substances, it produces adverse effects when used in high concentrations.   

Oils That Cool and Soften

Many essential oils with positive effects on the muscular system are “cooling” or “softening.” These oils can help us tone down more aggressive oils and reduce the chance they’ll cause adverse reactions without losing therapeutic potency. Cooling and softening oils include bergamot, blue cypress, cypress, frankincense, German chamomile, grapefruit, lavender, lemon, and yarrow. 

While we haven’t unpacked the other physiological effects of the muscular system oils, we’ve come to understand that unique biological mechanisms underlie each oil’s actions on the body. 

Safe Muscular System Synergies 

For massage lubricants designed for full-body application (don’t apply these blends on the face), add approximately 12 (mild) to 24 (strong, but generally safe) drops of an essential oil synergy (or blend) to each ounce of carrier oil, lotion, or cream. So, for 2 ounces of carrier, add approximately 24–48 drops, and for 3 ounces, add 48–72 drops. 

For muscular system blends, I purchase 2-ounce plastic bottles and fill them with carrier product. Two ounces of carrier is enough for a full-body massage and a little extra. I like to send clients home with the leftover blend and directions to apply it to sore or painful areas as needed. 

You might use numerous vegetable oils as carriers for essential oils; I like to combine expeller-pressed sunflower oil and avocado oil. Sunflower oil has a light aroma, while avocado has a sweet aroma that integrates well with the aromas of essential oils. Additionally, avocado oil has a rich, velvety texture that leaves skin nourished and soft. 

Other vegetable oils include black currant (Ribes nigrum) and hemp seed oil (Cannabis sativa). Black currant oil is naturally anti-inflammatory and soothing to the skin. It’s a good choice when working with oils that can potentially cause skin irritation. Hemp seed oil has notable anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, making it especially useful in massage therapy or pain relief blends. However, it has a short shelf life and must be refrigerated. 

If you use lotion or cream as your carrier, purchase products free of mineral oil, petroleum, lanolin, fragrance, and dye. These ingredients interact negatively with essential oils and may cause skin reactions. 

For spot treatments (e.g., application to one small patch of skin like the low back), I combine plain lotion, aloe vera gel, and arnica gel. Aloe vera gel is cooling and astringent (tightens the tissue), while arnica gel is analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and antineuralgic. However, arnica gel can cause allergic reactions in some people and irritates skin conditions such as broken skin, eczema, dermatitis, or psoriasis. 

Protocol and Training

Remember to never apply aromatherapy formulas to clients without their informed consent. We must clearly articulate the benefits of a synergy and the potential for adverse reactions. Additionally, many essential oils we’ve used to formulate these synergies are expensive, which translates to charging clients an aromatherapy fee of $10–$20 for the session.

If you’re new to aromatherapy, I encourage you to obtain formal training and begin by exploring your personal responses to essential oils. Craft one of these formulas and ask your massage therapist to apply it to you during a session. Notice how an aromatherapy synergy amplifies the benefits you experience with massage. And as always: Have fun and work safely. 


1. F. Bakkali et al., “Biological Effects of Essential Oils—A Review,” Food and Chemical Toxicology 46, no. 2 (February 2008): 446–75, 

2. W. Jager et al., “Percutaneous Absorption of Lavender Oil from a Massage Oil,” Journal of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists 43 (January–February 1992): 49–54. 

3. João B. Calixto et al., “Contribution of Natural Products to the Discovery of the Transient Receptor Potential (TRP) Channels Family and Their Functions,” Pharmacology & Therapeutics 106, no. 2 (May 2005): 179–208, 

4. Azza A. A. Galal and S. A. Abdellatief, “Neuropharmacological Studies on Syzygium Aromaticum (Clove) Essential Oil,” International Journal of Pharma Sciences 5, no. 2 (January 2015): 1013–8,

5. The Associated Press, “Sports Cream Warnings Urged After Teen’s Death,” NBC News (June 13, 2007), 

6. Hironori Tsuchiya, “Anesthetic Agents of Plant Origin: A Review of Phytochemicals with Anesthetic Activity,” Molecules 22, no. 8 (August 2017): 1369, 

7. Wei Kevin Zhang et al., “Nutmeg Oil Alleviates Chronic Inflammatory Pain Through Inhibition of COX-2 Expression and Substance P Release in Vivo,” Food & Nutrition Research 60 (April 2016), 

8. Elisa Frederico Seneme et al., “Pharmacological and Therapeutic Potential of Myristicin: A Literature Review,” Molecules 26, no. 19 (October 2021): 5914,

9. Cosima C. Hoch et al., “1,8-Cineole (Eucalyptol): A Versatile Phytochemical with Therapeutic Applications Across Multiple Diseases,” Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy 167 (November 2023),  

Essential Oil Synergies Formulas

Formulate these blends in 5-milliliter glass bottles and add the appropriate number of drops to the lubricant directly before using it for massage. (Knowing that a milliliter is approximately 20 drops of essential oil may be helpful.) Try these formulas and remember, don’t apply any of them to the face. 

• Chronic pain relief—Combine 2 ounces of carrier with 6 drops of sweet birch (or wintergreen), 10 drops of nutmeg, 12 drops of frankincense, and 10 drops of lavender for a full-body massage application. 

• Full-body anti-inflammatory synergy—Combine 2 ounces of carrier with 6 drops of wintergreen, 8 drops of blue cypress, 10 drops of atlas cedar, and 12 drops of bergamot. 

• Joint inflammation and pain treatment—Combine 1 ounce of arnica gel with 15 drops of nutmeg, 6 drops of sweet birch, and 15 drops of turmeric. Use this formula on selected joints. 

• Neuralgia spot treatment—Combine 1 ounce of arnica gel with 10 drops of helichrysum, 20 drops of turmeric, and 10 drops of lemon. Apply this formula to the path of the affected nerve.

• Pain relief spot treatment—Combine a ½ ounce of arnica gel with a ½ ounce of aloe vera gel and 1 ounce of lightweight lotion in a jar. Add 20 drops of peppermint essential oil and apply it to a small area of acute pain, such as the posterior neck, lower back, path of a tendon, or shoulder. 

• Regional anti-inflammatory synergy—Combine 2 ounces of carrier with 8 drops of German chamomile, 4 drops of helichrysum, 10 drops of nutmeg, 6 drops of white camphor, and 12 drops of lemon. Use it regionally on areas of acute or subacute inflammation, and use a plain lubricant to massage unaffected body regions. 

• Regional relief—Combine a ½ ounce of arnica gel with a ½ ounce of aloe vera gel and 1 ounce of lotion in a jar. Add 12 drops of eucalyptus, 6 drops of wintergreen, 10 drops of blue cypress, 12 drops of grapefruit, and 10 drops of lavender. Apply this formula to a region such as the posterior neck, lower back, hamstring, ankle, foot, calf, shoulder, or forearm. Use a plain lubricant for massage of unaffected body regions. 

• Sore muscles—Combine 2 ounces of carrier with 12 drops of ravintsara, 4 drops of clove bud, 20 drops of lemon, and 8 drops of clary sage for a full-body massage application. 

• Tension tamer (antispasmodic) synergy—Combine 2 ounces of carrier with 16 drops of black spruce, 6 drops of clary sage, 20 drops of lemon, and 8 drops of nutmeg for use in a full-body massage. 

Anne Williams is a massage therapist, aromatherapist, author, and educator. Find her courses on aromatherapy for massage therapists at