Aromatherapy uses a combination of essential oils and aromatic plants to produce a healing effect. Essential oils are extracted from flowers, fruits, leaves and barks. The treatment usually includes massage, which helps the highly scented oils to penetrate the deeper layers of skin. Aromatic oils can also be absorbed when they are mixed with water and evaporated into the air or inhaled directly. Their scents are said to have an effect on the limbic system in the brain, which is connected to emotion and memory. This is why aromatherapy is believed to promote relaxation and a more positive mood. Aromatherapists also argue that many essential oils have medicinal properties, including antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and regenerative qualities.
The therapy usually begins when the aromatherapist takes your medical history. Based on this consultation, he or she will mix the relevant essential oils with a carrier oil. Therapists frequently use a combination of massage and aromas, which are released into the air through oil burners or bundles of herbs. It is vital not to use essential oils neat, as they can burn the skin and sensitive body tissues. The first session often lasts up to two hours. Subsequent sessions are typically an hour long.
- Possible benefits of Aromatherapy for stroke
Aromatherapy provides a number of general benefits, such as relaxation and sleep enhancement. There are also specific benefits that can help stroke survivors, which include pain relief and the release of muscular tension.
In 2007, a study into hemiplegic shoulder pain in stroke survivors compared the effects of acupressure to the effects of aromatherapy plus acupressure. Researchers randomly divided 30 participants into two groups. They treated each group twice a day for 20 minutes over a period of two weeks. Results showed that the group treated with lavender, rosemary and peppermint oils recovered better than the group treated with acupressure alone. They concluded:
‘These results suggest that aromatherapy acupressure exerts positive effects on hemiplegic shoulder pain, compared to acupressure alone, in stroke patients.’1
The authors suggest that the positive effects come from the relaxation that smell and touch bring. Research has shown that relaxation can alter the perception of pain.2
In 2004, Paula Mullins published her observations on the use of aromatherapy in a stroke unit.3 Through a number of case histories, she explained how aromatherapy helped some people to improve their swallow, increase their speech, relax their muscle tension and reduce their pain. One example she cited was that of an 88-year-old lady who had suffered a stroke. She was unable to speak, suffered from hypertension, and the right-hand side of her body was weak. She could not control her mouth or tongue, which led to ‘continual dribbling’. She was also unable to eat or control her jaw.
‘Treatment: The patient received 8 regular face massage treatments with lavender/mandarin essential oil in a carrier oil blend. The aim/objective of the treatment was to help tone the muscles in the face and to stimulate sensitivity in the facial area. Particular attention was given to the lips, chin and cheeks for stimulation when receiving the face massage. A massage was also given under the chin to help stimulate the flaccid tongue. Tea tree essential oil was used to stimulate the tongue, which had no movement. By the 3rd treatment this patient could move her tongue very slightly with some exercises. She managed to swallow some water and thickened juice. There was no more dribbling and she managed to keep her lips closed as much as possible. By the 7th treatment the patient was able to drink fluids much better and her swallowing had improved.
After the treatment: The patient had no dribbling/drooling. She closed her lips together when swallowing and dabbed her mouth when necessary to clear any excessive spillage from her lips.’4
- Arguments against using Aromatherapy for stroke
The main argument against using aromatherapy for stroke is a lack of clinical trials and verifiable data. Most of the reports on how aromatherapy can help stroke survivors come from patients and aromatherapists, not from scientific clinical trials.
Another problem is that many aromatherapists use massage in conjunction with essential oils, which makes it difficult to determine whether a particular beneficial effect is coming from massage or from the oils in question. A study published in the April 2008 edition of the online journal Psychoneuroendocrinology tested two essential oils on 56 healthy volunteers. Researchers at Ohio State University chose the popular oils lemon and lavender. Participants wore cotton balls impregnated with one or other scent for three half-day periods. Scientists then ran a number of tests. They measured participants’ ability to heal, their reaction to pain, and their psychological responses. While lemon oil did seem to promote a more positive mood, the study found that the aromas failed to produce any other measurable benefit.5
It is essential to inform your therapist if you have any allergies to nuts, seeds, or other plants. Carrier oils (the base oils used to dilute and ‘carry’ essential oils) can be nut- or seed-based (e.g. almond, peanut, or sesame oil) and essential oils, being highly concentrated plant essences, can also trigger allergies if they come from a plant to which you are allergic. In addition, they can irritate conditions such as eczema and interact with prescription drugs if used improperly, so it is imperative to work with a qualified and experienced aromatherapist.
- Case histories
1. This article outlines a number of case histories that demonstrate the benefits of aromatherapy. ‘Aromatherapy used on a Stroke Rehabilitation Unit’ by Paula Mullins. PositiveHealthOnline: Articles: Aromatherapy: originally published in issue 99 – May 2004
- Notes and references
- ‘Effects of Aromatherapy Acupressure on Hemiplegic Shoulder Pain And Motor Power in Stroke Patients: A Pilot Study’ by Byung-Cheul Shin, Myeong Soo Lee. In The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. March 2007, 13(2): 247-252.
- Teasell R, Foley N, Bhogal SK, Salter K, ‘Management of Post Stroke Pain’. In Evidence-Based Review of Stroke Rehabilitation, 2009, p. 1-31, p. 21
- Paula Mullins Dip ArTh MThCert Dip A/P Dip Ref ITEC CertEd works at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital NHS Trust as an aromatherapist, reflexologist and researcher at the time of publication.
- ‘Aromatherapy used on a Stroke Rehabilitation Unit’ by Paula Mullins. PositiveHealthOnline: Articles: Aromatherapy: originally published in Issue 99 – May 2004.
- ‘Olfactory influences on mood and autonomic, endocrine, and immune function’ by Kiecolt-Glaser, J.K., Graham, J.E., Malarkey, W.B., Porter, K., Lemeshow, S., Glaser, R. In Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2008. no. 33: 328-339.
Aviva Cohen is the author and CEO of Neuro Hero