Background. Aromatherapy refers to the medicinal or therapeutic use of essential oils absorbed through the skin or olfactory system. Recent literature has examined the effectiveness of aromatherapy in treating pain. Methods. 12 studies examining the use of aromatherapy for pain management were identified through an electronic database search.
Aromatherapy refers to the medicinal or therapeutic use of essential oils absorbed through the skin or olfactory system [1, 2]. Essential oils, which are derived from plants, are used to treat illness as well as to enhance physical and psychological well-being. Although the use of distilled plant materials dates back to medieval Persia, the term “aromatherapy” was first used by Rene Maurice Gattefosse in the early 20th century. In his 1937 book, Aromatherapie, Gattefosse claimed that herbal medicine could be used to treat virtually any ailment throughout the human organ system. Today, aromatherapy is popular in the United States and around the world .
Although many claims have been made relating to the benefits of aromatherapy, most research has focused on its use to manage depression, anxiety, muscle tension, sleep disturbance, nausea, and pain . Some studies suggest that olfactory stimulation related to aromatherapy can result in immediate reduction in pain, as well as changing physiological parameters such as pulse, blood pressure, skin temperature, and brain activity . Although the benefits remain controversial, many patients and healthcare providers are attracted to aromatherapy because of its low cost and minimal side effects. Essential oils currently available for medicinal use are generally recognized as safe by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In some cases, essential oils can cause minor skin irritation at the site of use. If ingested in large amounts, essential oils can cause phototoxic reactions which can, in rare instances, be lethal .
Aromatherapy is most commonly applied topically, or through inhalation. When applied topically, the oil is usually added to carrier oil and used for massage. Essential oils can be inhaled through a humidifier or by soaking gauze and placing it near the patient . Olfactory and tactile sensory stimulation produced by these oils can enhance ordinary human activities such as eating, social interaction, and sexual contact . While more than 40 plant derivatives have been identified for therapeutic use, lavender, eucalyptus, rosemary, chamomile, and peppermint are the most frequently utilized extracts .
Even though aromatherapy is commonly used and has been practiced for centuries, few high quality empirical reviews have examined its effectiveness in reducing pain. A database search revealed that common end points for aromatherapy research often focus on the reduction of psychological symptoms such as depression and anxiety or seek to measure the increase of patient satisfaction. Many studies examining the use of aromatherapy in pain reduction focus on therapeutic massage rendering the isolated impact of essential oils without massage unclear. Obstetrical and gynecological pain has garnered the greatest attention when examining the efficacy of aromatherapy. To date, no meta-analysis has expressly examined the use of aromatherapy for pain reduction and management. The aim of this meta-analysis was to quantify the effectiveness of aromatherapy for pain management.
2.1. Literature Search Strategy
To retrieve available evidence related to the use of aromatherapy for pain management, the author conducted an electronic database search of PubMed, Science Direct, and the Cochrane Library using PRISMA and Cochrane guidelines. Each database was searched using the following MeSH terms: aromatherapy, essential oils AND pain, pain management. Articles identified in this manner were retrieved and their reference lists searched for additional relevant articles.
This study found a significant positive effect of aromatherapy in reducing pain. These results indicate that aromatherapy should be considered a safe addition to current pain management procedures as no adverse effects were reported in any of the included studies. Additionally, the cost associated with aromatherapy is far less than the cost associated with standard pain management treatment. Although the present meta-analysis indicates a large positive effect for the use of aromatherapy for pain management, the sample size is small. Given the prevalence of aromatherapy, more research is necessary to fully understand clinical applications for its use.
Aromatherapy massage appears to reduce the pain and discomfort of menstrual cramps, a 2015 study from the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology suggests. Participants did a self-massage with rose essential oil, an unscented almond oil, or no oil on the first day of menstruation for two menstrual cycles. By the second cycle, aromatherapy massage reduced the severity of pain compared to massage therapy with almond oil or no oil.1
Massage with aromatherapy may also ease menopausal symptoms. In a 2012 study published in Menopause, researchers compared 30-minute aromatherapy massage (twice a week for four weeks) to massage with plain oil or no treatment and found that both massage and aromatherapy massage were effective in reducing menopausal symptoms (with aromatherapy massage being more effective than massage only).2
Other research suggests that aromatherapy massage may not relieve symptoms in people with cancer. For a report published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews in 2016, for instance, researchers analyzed previously published studies and concluded that "this review demonstrated no differences in effects of massage on depression, mood disturbance, psychological distress, nausea, fatigue, physical symptom distress, or quality of life when compared with no massage."3
When comparing aromatherapy massage with no massage, they found that "there was some indication of benefit in the aromatherapy-massage group but this benefit is unlikely to translate into clinical benefit."3