Aromatherapy is a healing method based on the use of plant-derived aromatic substances. Its use dates back to ancient China and ancient Egypt. Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, a French chemist, originally developed the form of aromatherapy that is currently practiced in the United States.
Essential oils, the basis of aromatherapy, are highly purified oils which are obtained from plants by using cold pressing or specialized distillation procedures. There are more than 40 different oils that are used in aromatherapy. These oils may be used as mixtures or individually. Typically, they are administered by application to the skin, inhalation, or mixing with bath water. In France, oils are sometimes given by mouth or by the rectum or vagina.
Evaluation in MS and Other Conditions
There are not any rigorous studies of aromatherapy in people with MS. One small study of two people with MS found that aromatherapy and massage improved mobility, personal hygiene, and dressing ability.
For aromatherapy use in other medical conditions, there are limited studies of variable quality. Among studies of symptoms that occur in MS, suggestive, but not definitive, results have been obtained with anxiety, depression, pain, and insomnia. Some studies combine aromatherapy with massage—in those studies, it is not possible to determine whether beneficial effects are due to massage, aromatherapy, or both therapies.
Aromatherapy is generally well tolerated. Application of oil to the skin may produce a rash. Clove or cinnamon oil should not be applied to the skin. Skin irritation may be caused by the oils of basil, fennel, lemon grass, rosemary, and verbena. About five percent of people are allergic to fragrances. Due to toxicity concerns, oil should not be taken internally. Aromatherapy may cause miscarriage, and, thus, should not be used by pregnant women. There are concerns that the odor of some oils may provoke headaches, asthma, and seizures.
Aromatherapy is of reasonable cost and low risk. It has not been rigorously studied in MS. One small, preliminary study in MS reported that multiple symptoms were improved by aromatherapy. Limited studies in other conditions suggest that aromatherapy may relieve anxiety, depression, pain, and insomnia, but these studies have not been consistent. Further study is needed to definitely determine whether aromatherapy has therapeutic effects in MS.
References and Additional Reading
Bowling AC. Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Multiple Sclerosis. New York: Demos Medical Publishing, 2007, pp. 43-46.
Ernst E, ed. The Desktop Guide to Complementary and Alternative Medicine: An
Evidence-Based Approach. Edinburgh: Mosby, 2001, pp.33–35.
Fugh-Berman A. Alternative Medicine: What Works. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins,
1997, pp. 182–187.
Hirsh AR. Aromatherapy: art, science, or myth? In: Weintraub MI, Micozzi M, eds.
Alternative and Complementary Treatment in Neurologic Illness. Philadelphia:
Churchill Livingstone, 2001, pp. 128–150.
Kowalak JP, Mills EJ, eds. Professional Guide to Complementary and Alternative
Therapies. Springhouse, PA: Springhouse Publishing, 2001, pp. 52–53.
Navarra T. The Encyclopedia of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. New York:
Checkmark Books. 2005, pp.8–10.
Vickers A. Massage and Aromatherapy: A Guide for Health Professionals. London:
Chapman & Hall, 1996.
Howarth AL. Will aromatherapy be a useful treatment strategy for people with
multiple sclerosis who experience pain? Compl Ther Nurs Midwifery 2002;
Walsh E, Wilson C. Complementary therapies in long-stay neurology in-patient
settings. Nursing Standard 1999;13:32–35.