Although aromatherapy has been around for thousands of years and has been relied upon as a valid treatment for almost all the ills of humanity, it wasn’t until the 20th century that the practice was subjected to serious scientific investigation.
At first dismissed as ancient folklore with the advent of more scientific treatments, it could not be ignored when French chemist Rene Gattefoss discovered in 1930 (reports vary from 1928 to 1937) that lavender oil could diminish pain and enhance the healing process for burns. Reportedly, he instinctively plunged his hand into a vat of the oil at his family’s perfume company when he was burned in a laboratory explosion. After what seemed a miraculous recovery, Gattefoss conducted experiments to document the effects of the lavender oil.
Later, during World War II, French physician Dr. Jean Valnet employed a number of essential oils in the treatment of soldiers’ burns and wounds. He also experimented with aromatic essences and achieved some significant results in the treatment of psychiatric problems as well.
There seems to be little modern scientific work done in this area, though some anecdotal reports surface from time to time to keep the subject alive. The consensus appears to support the idea that pain management is most successful when several modalities are practiced, rather than expecting a single remedy to provide complete relief.
Though not conclusive, a number of studies have shown a definite therapeutic effect associated with the use of certain essential oils when used in conjunction with other therapies. For example,
massage with lavender oil may be more effective than massage with other oils, or none at all. It is thought that the pleasant aroma may have a calming effect on some patients, allowing them to relax and thus, deal with their pain more effectively.
In some cases, just being able to sleep better can have positive effects on pain management, and massaging with pleasing fragrances can enhance relaxation, leading to sleep.
Similarly, massage with chamomile oil was shown to ease tension and anxiety in another study involving patients who had cancer pain. And another study showed diminished pain when marigold oil was used in other conditions.
Combining lavender and chamomile achieved some promising results where terminally ill children were able to use less pain medication when these oils were added as a complementary protocol.
Some headache sufferers have reported some relief when peppermint oil was used, providing a cooling effect along with a degree of pain mitigation.
While no conclusions can be drawn, as there has not been sufficient study in this area, it should not be summarily dismissed as useless that aromatherapy might be beneficial for some people, for some conditions. It’s certainly no less beneficial than the simple application of cold or hot compresses, which most medical practitioners still advise for the treatment of pain in many instances.