July 12, 2000 -- Aromatherapy: The very name implies some sort of medical benefit. And believers say that aromatherapy -- the use of fragrant plant oils in massage, baths, and as an inhalant -- can do everything from relieve anxiety to ease cold symptoms.
But a new review study says that there is little evidence that the practice has any health effects, and it concludes that aromatherapy probably should be considered nothing more than a "pleasant diversion."
For the review, published in the British Journal of General Practice, researchers looked at 12 clinical studies of aromatherapy performed over the past 18 years. Six involved therapeutic massage, and the others looked at medical interventions for conditions ranging from smoking withdrawal to bronchitis to baldness. Because the researchers found all the studies to be small and flawed -- and lacking the proper tone for a critical look at aromatherapy -- they say their findings should be viewed with caution.
In any case, 10 of the 12 studies found positive results for aromatherapy, though few concluded that there were strong, clear-cut benefits. The most consistent finding was that therapeutic massages using essential oils may have a slightly more relaxing effect in the short term than massages without them.
One massage therapist says she can vouch for that. "I see instant results when I use aromatherapy," says Kristen Leigh Conwell, of the Village Center for Wellness in Williamsville, N.Y. "Personally, I think everybody could use aromatherapy. You would just have to find some scent suitable for the person."
Conwell says she decides what scent to use by how her client is feeling. "If somebody is feeling extremely stressed, overwhelmed, even slightly anxious, I would include lavender," she says. "If I'm starting to feel fatigued in the middle of the day, I'll use eucalyptus."
Conwell says aromatherapy gives quick benefits because the oils are automatically "assimilated" into the bloodstream. But the British researchers say the five massage studies that showed beneficial effects made no claim about whether skin absorption of the oils was the reason -- or whether it was just that they smelled good.
Further complicating the picture is that aromatherapists don't all agree on what works or how. "You can't generalize," says Regina Helena Shrimpton, of Reiki Matters in Teaneck, N.J. "Lavender, for instance. For some people, it's very calming. For some people, it's very uplifting. All the oils are very individual."
Shrimpton, a master of the Reiki bodywork technique, has her own thoughts on why essential oils seem to work: "The oils work on the psyche of a person. It's a temporary thing. It doesn't last for a long time because the oils are volatile." Her method for choosing an appropriate oil starts like this: If a person likes how it smells, it's all right to use.
The authors of the review say researchers may never know why aromatherapy seems to have a slight beneficial effect. It could be that certain odors trigger relaxing memories, they say.
But in a letter published along with the review, Andrew Vickers, MD, of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, says it doesn't much matter. Aromatherapy probably eases anxiety because it's connected with a massage, he says. And since the essential oils are usually neither dangerous nor terribly expensive, it makes little sense to belabor the point of whether they add anything to the massage experience.