Wisc. Ambulance Service Replaces Opioids With ... Essential Oils

Bottle of essential oil with fresh herbal sage, rosemary, lemon thyme ,thyme ,green mint and peppermint setup with flat lay on white wooden table.

An ambulance service in western Wisconsin has taken on the opioid crisis by replacing pain medications with essential oils. Tri-State Ambulance has equipped paramedics with six different essential oils that can help treat pain, nausea, or anxiety.

The service's medical director acknowledged that aromatherapy would not treat patients' pain — so it is not a viable alternative or a solution to the opioid crisis — but it can create a better environment. Perhaps more importantly, it can prevent the very first exposure many patients had to opioids — in the ambulance itself.

"We started reviewing, 'Why are they giving narcotics?' and really it came down to the fact that they didn't have many other things they could do in the ambulance ride," Dr. Chris Eberlein, medical director for Tri-State Ambulance, told Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR).

Eberlein noticed that paramedics had given small doses of narcotics like fentanyl to patients who ended up not needing a prescription for pain medication.

In other words, ambulances may have been the gateway to opioid addiction for patients who did not even need strong pain meds in the first place. The very vehicle dedicated to saving lives was actually involved in ruining lives.

Opioids have been shown to lead to addiction and other drug use. On average, 115 Americans die each day from an opioid overdose, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Eberlein took the idea of using essential oils from Gundersen Health System, the parent company of Tri-State, which has been using essential oils in the hospital setting for several years. The ambulance medical director said success with essential oils among patients in post-operative care inspired him to apply aromatherapy to ambulances.

"We’re not going to not treat your pain. If you need a narcotic, you’re going to get it," Eberlein told WPR. "What we‘re looking at is for the patients that ... they've got minor pain along with other complaints, that we can supplement their treatment with this."

Ambulance operators put a few drops of essential oil on a cotton ball, and then tape that ball to the patient's chest. Eberlein said the smell is not overwhelming, but it creates a better environment for healing. Ambulances can often be unpleasant places for patients as they rush to the hospital, he noted.

"Before you get in, you get a nice whiff of diesel fume or exhaust in the back. And then you’re in this very sterile-like environment, bleachy smell, plastic smells," Eberlein explained.

Essential oils may make the environment of an ambulance more pleasant, and they might give ambulance staff "something to do" while transporting a patient to safety.

Anything that occupies ambulance staff or patients to prevent them from administering or taking unnecessary opioids could be considered this kind of response to the crisis. Even fidget spinners, if they prevent the delivery of unnecessary addicting drugs, can be a solution to the crisis.

Essential oils may help make an ambulance a better environment for patients, but they won't alleviate pain. The WPR article concluded by mentioning a real pain-killer, but perhaps not a solution. "Tri-State paramedics will also have access to liquid Tylenol as another alternative to opioids," WPR reporter Hope Kirwan concluded.

Many patients need something stronger than Tylenol, but if they receive Tylenol in the ambulance, instead of opioids, that might help prevent addiction later.

Ultimately, the solution to addiction is personal responsibility. In his book "12 Rules For Life: an Antidote to Chaos," Canadian professor Jordan Peterson put forth a explanation why many American adults overdose on opioids. He suggested Americans often violate his second rule, "Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping."

Ambulances and hospitals do need to reconsider how easily they provide access to opioids, and immediately stop providing them when unnecessary. At the end of the day, Americans who experience serious pain and therefore receive serious pain-killers will have to find a way to deal with it and avoid addiction. This is not easy, and doctors should make sure as few Americans as possible are put in such a difficult situation.

If essential oils prevent "health" professionals from giving small doses of narcotics that start the path toward opioid addiction, they may help alleviate the crisis, but at the end of the day only personal responsibility will achieve the ultimate victory over addiction.