Essential oils are excellent for topical pain relief. "When some part of the body is injured, the natural response is to rub the afflicted area," says Ellen Kamhi, PhD, RN, coauthor of The Natural Medicine Chest (M. Evans and Co., 1999). "This act of rubbing is itself therapeutic; however, the use of topical herbs can enhance the healing response." One note: Essential oils often need to be diluted with water or a carrier oil, such as jojoba or almond oil, to avoid skin irritation. Try these pain-relieving essential oils:

Camphor, a penetrating oil derived from the tropical tree Cinnamomum camphora, is one of Kamhi's favorites. "When rubbed into painful areas, camphor provides soothing relief," she says. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Kamhi adds, camphor (called zhang nao) is believed to "invigorate the blood and relieve stagnation," thus resulting in pain relief.

Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), a shrub found in the eastern United States, has chemical properties similar to salicylic acid, which is used in aspirin.

Clove (Syzygium aromaticum) and Allspice (Pimenta dioica) contain the essential oil eugenol, which is an excellent anesthetic. "Folk healers in the Caribbean use clove and allspice in topical rubs to relieve arthritis and muscle aches," Kamhi says.

Peppermint Leaves (Mentha piperita) and Eucalyptus Leaves (Eucalyptus globulus), in combination, may decrease pain and increase blood flow to painful body regions, according to findings from preliminary research. Peppermint leaves contain large amounts of menthol that, similar to wintergreen, acts as a topical analgesic. "Initially, it produces a cooling sensation to inflamed areas, followed by a profound warmth," Kamhi says. The key ingredient in eucalyptus, on the other hand, is a volatile oil known as eucalyptol, also commonly used in nasal inhalers and sprays, balms and mouthwashes.