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Image of vapouriserWhat is Aromatherapy?

Plant essences (‘essential oils’) have been used in several ancient cultures for treating or preventing illnesses or enhancing wellbeing, but the birth of aromatherapy proper was not until the publication of a book entitled Aromathérapie by the French chemist René Gattefosse in 1937. Gattefosse had previously burned his hand while working in his laboratory and immediately immersed it in lavender oil. To his amazement, the wound healed quickly without leaving a scar. This experience prompted him to study the medicinal powers of essential oils.

There are several ways of using essential oils. Most commonly, the diluted oil is applied to the skin via a gentle massage, but the oil can also be added to a bath or diffused in the ambient air. If combined with a massage, aromatherapy is definitely relaxing – but it is unclear whether the effect is caused by the oil, the gentle massage or both. Aromatherapists believe that different essential oils have different specific effects. Therefore therapists individualize these oils according to their patient’s characteristics, symptoms, etc.

A consultation with an aromatherapist can last between one and two hours. The therapist will normally take a brief medical history, possibly conduct a short examination and then proceed by massaging a diluted essential oil into the skin of the patient. This usually is relaxing and agreeable. Aromatherapy is often advocated for chronic conditions such as anxiety, tension headache and musculoskeletal pain. Aromatherapists usually recommend regular sessions, even in the absence of symptoms, e.g. for preventing recurrences.

What is the Evidence?

Some clinical trials confirm the relaxing effects of aromatherapy massage. However, these effects are usually shortlived and therefore of debatable therapeutic value. Some essential oils do seem to have specific effects. For instance, tea tree has antimicrobial properties. However, these are far less reliable than those of conventional antibiotics. The risks of aromatherapy are minimal, such as the possibility that some patients may be allergic to some essential oils.

In short, aromatherapy has short-term ‘de-stressing’ effects which can contribute to enhanced wellbeing after treatment. There is no evidence that aromatherapy can treat specific diseases.

For More Information:

This extract is taken from “Trick or Treatment?” (Transworld), a book that contains a series of 1-page summaries looking at the evidence for and against a range of alternative therapies. The authors of the book are Simon Singh (founder of the Good Thinking Society) and Edzard Ernst (the world’s first professor of complementary medicine