Aromatherapy is a form of complementary therapy that uses essential oils and other aromatic plant compounds to improve physical and mental health and wellbeing.
The essential oils are extracted or distilled from plants. Flowers, leaves, roots, resins, seeds and fruits of many herbs, shrubs and trees are used to provide aromatic oils, each believed to have their own healing properties. For example, some may act as natural painkillers while others are reported to have balancing effects on the nervous and hormonal systems.
How does it work?
There are two ways of accessing the oils:
- Via the skin: The molecules pass through the skin and into the bloodstream, which circulates them throughout the body. This occurs through massage, a bath or compresses (when a few drops are added to water. A cloth is soaked in the aromatic water and applied to the affected body area).
- Inhalation: The molecules are transmitted to the part of the brain that influences the nervous and hormonal systems, and which is connected to functions such as memory and emotional behaviour. This occurs through direct inhalation (a smelling strip or bottle of undiluted essential oil is held about 10cm below the nostrils), dispersion (oils are sprinkled or sprayed onto linen, furniture and handkerchiefs) or evaporation (oils are combined with water and placed over a lit candle).
Aromatherapy is somewhat loosely defined and often the use of scents does not qualify for the therapy to be deemed therapeutic. The important point is that it must be the aroma that elicits the positive response, ie the scent, not the massage.
Dr Rainer Schneider runs a research facility in Germany and has been leading projects about aromatherapy for five years.
“The effectiveness of aromatherapy depends on at least two very important factors,” he explains. “Firstly, whether or not the patient generally responds to the treatment (as with many treatments there are responders and non-responders). Secondly, how intense the pain is, as aromatherapy usually works best in patients suffering mild to average pain intensity.
“Pleasant scents induce mood improvement and decrease pain unpleasantness when pain intensity is attended to. And paying attention to the intensity of scents during pain stimulation decreases how strongly you feel pain and activity in the brain areas that control pain.
“Several pathways have been identified for a number of essential oils. In general, scent molecules can directly trigger the brain to respond in a particular way, such as by releasing certain hormones, but they can also be absorbed by the mucous membrane and lung to produce an effect in the cardiovascular system. In our research we have observed that the physical response to scents can be measured within a few minutes even after very short periods of application. However, scents are volatile so long-lasting effects may not necessarily be expected, unless the application is regularly repeated and no habituation occurs (ie the body doesn’t get used to the scent).
“As well as individual qualities, scents generally direct attention away from pain. This is because they are closely associated with taste and so are processed and experienced in terms of tastes. As many scents are experienced as ‘sweet’ they may inhibit the pain experience by activating the opioid reward system, which in turn reduces the sensation of pain.”
Can it help people with arthritis?
There is no wide body of evidence showing that aromatherapy is effective for arthritis. Many studies are excluded from reviews as they have been poorly carried out, so some medical traditionalists discount aromatherapy entirely.
“There is little evidence that aromatherapy is effective for arthritis, although there’s some evidence that it’s beneficial in other painful conditions and helpful with anxiety,” says Dr Tom Margham, GP and Versus Arthritis spokesperson. “Aromatherapy is unlikely to be harmful or make symptoms of arthritis worse. If it has any effect, it is likely related to helping with relaxation and reducing anxiety rather than helping the arthritis itself.”
One issue is that when mainstream drugs are made, compounds are isolated that are proven to have certain effects. But in aromatherapy, many natural elements make up a plant. These can vary depending on region, climate and subspecies, so measuring precisely how effective they are (and which bits of them work best) is difficult.
Dr Schneider suggests that although aromatherapy is no quick fix for arthritis, it can certainly help reduce pain.
“Our own line of research suggests that essential oils work best as aids to existing pain management choices,” he says. “Used alongside traditional painkillers, essential oils can reduce onset of pain relief and pain duration, as well as improving overall wellbeing. And when used with non-drug-based pain treatments, essential oils can reduce pain intensity too.”
Is it safe?
Essential oils are very concentrated and should never be used in large quantities (particularly by anyone pregnant) or applied to the skin undiluted. A carrier oil can dilute essential oils when using them in massage.
In general, however, aromatherapy is suitable for most people as it is a gentle therapy and there should be no side effects. If allergic reaction is a concern, a patch test can be applied before treatment begins.
Choosing an aromatherapist
“There are lots of aromatherapists who have not trained in clinical aromatherapy, and are therefore more beauty orientated,” outlines Penny Price, an aromatherapy practitioner for over 30 years. “To find a clinical therapist, contact the International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists or the Penny Price Aromatherapy Academy, both of which can supply details of a local therapist.
“Always check that the aromatherapist is fully insured, has clinical training and that they understand the pharmacological effects of the oils so that you have confidence the correct oils will be used. Therapists should be happy to answer questions before committing to a course of treatment and give a realistic outline of what can be achieved.
“Clinic treatments vary in cost across the country, ranging from £30 to £95 per session. However, most therapists offer products to be self-administered as one treatment a month is unlikely to make a lasting difference.”
You will be offered one or more of the following, Penny explains:
Lotions, oils and creams
The aromatic preparation will usually come as an oil-based, cream-based or lotion-based product. Because of the nature of arthritis, Penny suggests that lotion-based is the preferred option. This means the home treatment will be light, easily absorbed and will not feel oily or greasy after application. Oils for pain, inflammation and steroid damage are the usual options for home treatment.
To treat all-over pain, a bath can be helpful. For a full bath use either eight drops of undiluted essential oils or a tablespoon of the lotion blend and soak for 20 minutes. For a hand/foot bath use four drops of essential oil in a small basin, footbath or foot-spa.
Cover the painful area with the aromatherapy lotion and cover with a warm wheat pack, or if the inflammation is burning, a cold wheat pack and leave for 20 minutes.
The bottom line
Aromatherapy is no cure for arthritis but it may be able to help reduce some symptoms, particularly pain. As side effects are rare, people with arthritis could consider using aromatherapy alongside their current treatment regime.
- International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists, visit ifparoma.org or tel 01455 637987
True story: Andrea Willis, 45 years old, Dartford, Kent
“I have facet joint osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, sciatica and degenerative disc disease. Although I had heard about the benefits of aromatherapy, it wasn’t until I had done years of research about my conditions that I decided to give it a try… because it kept coming up as an option. So in 2011, I started using lavender, peppermint and frankincense essential oils, either as a massage or in my bath. If I’m opting for an aromatherapy massage I use olive oil as a carrier oil. I find aromatherapy helps reduce inflammation, joint and muscle stiffness, relives stress and boosts my immunity. I’d definitely recommend giving it a try.”
Is a new approach to aromatherapy needed?
Dr Rainer Schneider, runs a research facility in Germany and has been leading projects about aromatherapy for five years. He has discovered that the way the essential oils are administered or accessed is much more important than has been previously realised:
“Our response to smell depends on the concentration of odour molecules that reach the nose. The higher the concentration the greater the number and type of receptors stimulated, and thus the larger the response.
“When our bodies get used to a smell, they stop reacting to it as strongly, ie the longer the exposure time the weaker the effects. So exposure time to scents must be limited so we don’t become too used to them.
“My line of research suggests that the limitations of aromatherapeutic effectiveness can be overcome when scent molecules are delivered to the nose via a specially produced inhaler. This inhaler (in the shape of a lipstick) tackles the problem that, with regular breathing, only about 10% of the air inhaled reaches the relevant brain regions.
“Usually aromatherapeutic agents are delivered using dispensers that vent the molecules into the air around us. While this may undoubtedly have unspecific physiological effects, the specific physiological effects are not very strong.
“Another benefit associated with this mode of application is that 100% essential oils can (and should) be used, instead of involving carrier oils which may alter the therapeutic effects. There is no risk of contact allergy and no permanent scent on the body or nose. And vitally, it means that no therapist is needed; a readily available self-treatment is important for many health issues, especially pain.”
Penny Price’s top aromatherapy tips
Essential oils for pain and inflammation
Plai: Zingiber cassumunar is anti-inflammatory, helpful for pain relief, a muscle relaxant and a local anaesthetic.
German chamomile: Matricaria chamomilla is one of the best-known anti-inflammatory essential oils. It is anti-spasmodic and calming and is used to treat arthritis, inflamed skin, headaches and emotional symptoms such as anxiety and depression.
Marjoram sweet: Origanum majorana has qualities that help relieve pain and are anti-infectious, calming, expectorant and helpful for the nervous system. As well as arthritis, it is used to treat migraine, respiratory infections and sinusitis.
Rosemary cineole: Rosmarinus officinalis relieves pain and is antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic and helpful for the nervous system. It is most often used to treat arthritis, rheumatism and fluid retention, although it can also be used for coughs and colds.
Lavender: Lavandula angustifolia’s has pain relieving, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic and sedative qualities. Its cicatrisant effects mean it is used to treat steroid-damaged skin as well as arthritis.
Carrier oils for pain and inflammation
Arnica oil: Benefitting the circulatory system and the skin, arnica oil is best known for its ability to help bruising, pain and guarding the skin against steroid damage.
Calendula oil: Highly anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic, calendula oil is useful in arthritic conditions and may help the healing process after joint replacement operations.
Carrot oil: Rich in vitamins A, B, C, D, E and F, carrot oil may used to help people with arthritis thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties. As carrot oil is also an effective skin rejuvenator it can help the skin to cope with steroid damage.
Hydrolats for pain and inflammation
Hydrolats contain many natural steroidal-type molecules that naturally reduce pain and swelling without damaging the skin or other organs. For arthritis, the hydrolats can be used in compresses, baths, creams, lotions and as skin sprays.
Rosemary hydrolat can be mixed into a cream for application to the body’s joints. Use 80ml of thick base cream, 20ml rosemary hydrolat and add 10 drops each of rosemary and lavender essential oils for maximum benefit. Apply twice a day for the best effect.
Chamomile is a traditional remedy for inflammatory conditions. The hydrolat can be used in the bath (50ml) or in a body cream: use 80ml thick base cream and 20ml chamomile hydrolat, adding rosemary and chamomile essential oils to enhance the blend if necessary.
Sage hydrolat is anti-inflammatory, calming and has slight analgesic properties to help reduce pain. Soaking the hands in warm sage hydrolat for 20 minutes may benefit painful and stiff hands, especially when followed by a massage with essential oils of lavender, plai and rosemary.