To many people aromatherapy is a fancy word for using pleasant smells to create a more relaxing ambience for massage. This description is not wrong, but it is far from complete. The essential oils used in aromatherapy have been found to elicit myriad physiological effects including: analgesia (pain-relief), anti-inflammatory effects, calming the mood, decongesting the sinuses, and acting as either sedatives or stimulants. So, while aromatherapy can create a more relaxing massage environment, it can also be used in conjunction with massage therapy to significantly increase the scope and scale of therapeutic effectiveness.
An essential oil is created by extracting natural oils—mostly from plants—and distilling them to concentrations hundreds or thousands of times stronger than what is found in the original source material. Naturally occurring chemicals in the oils emit strong fragrances that trigger specific responses in the body’s nervous system. Some oils also have topical effect, which is to say that contact with the skin creates various therapeutic effects. So, in cases where someone does not smell the fragrance of an essential oil, they may still be receiving benefits from exposure to it.
Essential oils may be used in aromatherapy in a variety of ways. The oils are sometimes blended with other massage lubricants (such as oil or lotion), which are then applied to the body throughout the massage. Essential oils may also be applied directly to the skin in small amounts, although direct use is not recommended without training. Due to their high concentration, these oils are very potent, which means their side effects can also be potent. Anyone with allergies or sensitivities could experience headaches, skin irritation or even nausea, so direct use should only be done under the supervision of an expert. To avoid adverse reactions, some people use essential oils without applying them directly to the skin by using scented candles, incense or by placing them in diffusers. A diffuser vaporizes the oil and distributes it into the air in small, controlled bursts.
There are dozens of essential oils used in aromatherapy, so we will only cover a few of the most common in this article. For physical aches and pains, the most effective essential oils have anti-inflammatory, analgesic or antispasmodic properties. Inflammation is one of the immediate responses of the body to any form of trauma, injury, stress or illness. It is also the dominant symptom in conditions like arthritis, bursitis or—for that matter—any condition that ends with the suffix “–itis.” The most commonly used anti-inflammatory oils are geranium, lavender, pepper mint, spear mint and tea tree. Mint oils in particular have a vapo-coolant effect, which is the same sensation of rapid heat and cooling that you receive with products like Icy Hot or Bio-freeze. Analgesics are chemicals that reduce or diminish pain. Chief amongst the analgesic essential oils are: bergamot, eucalyptus, lavender, and tea tree. Finally, antispasmodics reduce involuntary spasm in muscle tissue such as cramping. These oils include black pepper, clary sage, eucalyptus, lavender and pepper mint.
Essential oils can also have benefits for the mind, such as antidepressant effects, calming, and clearing the mind. Antidepressants include the oils from clary sage, geranium, ginger, lavender and rosemary. Calming fragrances include clary sage, geranium, lavender, lemon and pine. Other oils like basil, cardamom, pepper mint and rosemary have the tendency to increase focus and concentration. Of course, with psychological effects, aromas are often subjective meaning that whatever fragrance seems best to the client is usually best. However, scientific research has verified specific effects in several oils. Research shows that exposure to lavender oil actually lowers levels of cortisol in the bloodstream. Cortisol in a stress hormone associated with decreased immune function, digestive upset, and increased pain sensitivity.
Of course, this is a very brief list of essential oils and by no means exhaustive of the oils or their effects. For more information and to determine whether or not aromatherapy is appropriate for you, you should talk with a massage therapist trained in aromatherapy or with an actual aromatherapist.