Friday, December 30, 2016
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Today, aromatherapy is an established medical field in, Japan, France, and various Western European nations. In those countries, aromatherapy is often used as an antiseptic, antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial, with physicians in France and Japan using it to treat such conditions as diabetes and seizure disorders. Some essential oils are even regulated as prescription drugs in France and can only be prescribed by a doctor.
Dr. Andrew Weil, the Harvard-trained physician who founded and directs the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, feels that physicians and researchers here in the United States “have only a primitive understanding of [aromatherapy’s] potential to affect physiology and health.” In this country, aromatherapy is primarily associated with spas and, to a more limited extent, is embraced as an alternative medicine. But because of increased acceptance of alternative and complementary medicines—including massage!—more research is being done concerning the mechanism(s) of aromatherapy and its efficacy in a wide variety contexts.
The first question you or a researcher might have—assuming that aromatherapy does, in fact, have some impact on health—is, How does it work? But before I address that, it probably makes some sense to define our terms first. Aromatherapy uses essential oils, which are aromatic products extracted by steam distillation and other methods from plant parts, including flowers, leaves, fruits, barks, and roots. Because aromatherapy is not regulated in this country, the quality of these essential oils can vary greatly. In general, though, the best and purest essential oils are very concentrated—and very expensive.
To return to the question of the mechanism by which aromatherapy has an impact on you, it depends on how the essential oil is used. When used to target the sense of smell, the miniscule molecules of essential oils are absorbed into the bloodstream when inhaled and a signal is sent to the limbic system in the brain, which is the center of emotions and memory. When applied to the skin, they activate thermal receptors and destroy microbes and fungi.
The next question, though, is, What does aromatherapy actually do? One of the major complaints of physicians and scientists here and in the UK and Canada is that all too often authors of aromatherapy textbooks and aromatherapists more generally make a large number of extraordinary claims regarding its benefits with no systematic collection of data to support those claims. Studies are being done, though, that verify some benefits deriving from aromatherapy. There is, for instance, solid evidence that certain scents can help promote relaxation and enhance sleep.
Studies done in the past fifteen or twenty years have also shown such effects as reduced anxiety in patients undergoing MRI scans when presented with the vanilla-like smell of heliotropin; a reduction in agitation of dementia patients after lemon balm oil was applied to their faces and arms; and hair growth being induced among patients with alopecia areata (an autoimmune disorder that causes hair to fall out) after the application of a combination of cedarwood, rosemary, thyme, and lavender oils. A study done in April 2008 at Ohio state University, however, found that volunteers who had been exposed to lavender and lemon oil showed no effect, based on analysis of blood samples, on biochemical markers of immune and endocrine status, stress, pain control, and wound healing.
The upshot of all this is, for now, “If aromatherapy makes you feel better, by all means use it,” as Dr. Weil says. One just needs to be cautious not only about all of the claims made for treatment of ailments with essential oils but also about the credentials of your aromatherapist as improper use of essential oils can cause burns, allergic reactions, headaches, and nausea. And some oils may actually change the effectiveness of conventional medicine, making it a good idea to check with a qualified pharmacist or doctor if in doubt.
In my own practice, the only essential oil I currently use is eucalyptus oil placed near the face cradle to help open the sinuses of clients who tend to experience congestion during massage. But bear in mind what Associate Attending Research Methodologist Andrew Vickers (Integrative Medicine Service, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center) has concluded: “Aromatherapy probably reduces anxiety because it usually involves massage” [emphasis mine]. Now as to massage—that’s something I could do in my sleep. And actually have. But that’s another story.
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Monday, September 12, 2011
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Not only will 80–90 percent of the population have issues with low-back pain sometime during their adulthood but, in addition, back pain is one of the most common symptoms inducing people to visit a physician and is involved in almost a fourth of all occupational injuries and illnesses. In 2001, back injuries resulted in the highest percentage of short-term disability of all nonfatal illness and injury cases. In sum, back pain, especially low-back pain, is a big problem—for workers, employers, and insurance companies alike.
Part of the problem is that back pain can be difficult to diagnose, and physicians often overlook or misdiagnose trigger point pain (that is, localized areas of muscle soreness that refer pain to elsewhere in the body). This diagnostic difficulty can lead to treatments that don’t accurately address the problem, such as painkillers, which don’t necessarily rectify the problem but simply dull the pain. It is also worth mentioning that surgical rates for low-back pain are twice as high in the United States as in most other developed countries.
Often, to give a commonly occurring example, clients who are experiencing low-back pain actually have an issue with trigger points in the gluteal muscles, the piriformis muscle (which lies deep to the glutes), or even muscles as far away as the calf (the soleus muscle, to be exact). The piriformis, in particular, seems to be a major culprit when it comes to low-back pain. In my own practice, when I release knots in the piriformis muscle, I have had clients say they can feel the tension in their lower backs dissolve immediately. I even had one client say he felt his whole back realign when the tight spot in his piriformis let go.
Because low-back pain relief can be so close at hand—literally—it only makes sense to visit a knowledgeable massage therapist before trying something more invasive or simply palliative but not curative (such as pharmacologic “solutions”). And research is mounting to support this course of action. In one study, massage recipients reported less pain, depression, and anxiety, as well as improved sleep, and they showed improved trunk flexion. Stress hormones associated with chronic low-back pain were also reduced. A more recent study found similar results, with benefits lasting up to six months. And numerous other studies have shown massage to be helpful in relieving back pain.
Although reduction of stress hormones may come into play, in terms of how massage works to relieve low-back pain, as found in the one study, other researchers aren’t sure why massage seems to work. It may be that massage stimulates the muscle tissue locally or that it causes a response from the central nervous system. They also hypothesize that the reasons for improvement could be as simple as being in a relaxing environment or being cared for by a sympathetic therapist.
In any case, I agree with the chief author of the most recent study, who was quoted as saying, “If you’ve tried other things and you’re not getting adequate relief, then massage is a reasonable thing to try.” I would go one step further, though, and suggest that perhaps massage should be one of the first things you try.
Bagduk, Nikolai. 2004. “Management of Chronic Low Back Pain.” Medical Journal of Australia, vol. 180.
Bakalar, Nicholas. 2011. “Stubborn Back Pain? Try Massage.” New York Times, July 4 (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/04/embargo-july-4-5pm-for-back-pain-try-massage/?scp=1&sq=%22low%20back%20pain%22&st=cse).
Cherkin, Daniel C., et al. 2011. “A Comparison of the Effects of Two Types of Massage and Usual Care on Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized, Controlled Trial.” Annals of Internal Medicine 155:1–9.
Deyo, Richard A. 1983. “Conservative therapy for low back pain: Distinguishing Useful from Useless Therapy.” Journal of the American Medical Association 250:1057–62.
Deyo, Richard A., et al. 1996. “Low Back Pain: A Primary Care Challenge.” Spine 21:2826–32.
Hernandez-Reif, Maria, et al. 2001. “Lower Back Pain Is Reduced and Range of Motion Increased after Massage Therapy.” International Journal of Neuroscience 106:131–45.
Papadopoulos, E. C., and S. N. Kahn. 2004. “Piriformis Syndrome and Low Back Pain: A New Classification and Review of the Literature” Orthopedic Clinics of North America 2004 35:65–71.
Simons, D. G., and J. G. Travell. 1983. “Myofascial origins of low back pain. 3. Pelvic and lower extremity muscles. Postgraduate Medicine 73:99–105, 108.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2004. Worker Health Chartbook 2004. Publication no. 2004-146. Cincinnati, OH: U.S. DHHS, PHS, CDCP, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Fig. 1-38.