Massage Matters

Mindful musings on massage, muscles, and moxie

The Knot Whisperer Rides!

The Knot Whisperer Rides!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Sniffing Out the Truth(s) about Aromatherapy

Though the term “aromatherapy” wasn’t coined until 1928 (by French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse), the use of aromatic plants likely dates back to prehistoric times. Various perfumed ointments were used in ancient Rome to reduce inflammation and might actually have provided some relief by functioning as a germicide. Such ointments were also highly prized, however, because they could offset the foul odors emanating from festering wounds!
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

Good Vibrations!

You may think that the music played during a massage is nothing more than a relaxing distraction from ambient noises such as sirens, loud conversations, and your therapist’s grumbling belly.

Music can definitely be relaxing. Music with tempos ranging from 60 to 70 beats have been found to be soothing, apparently because they reflect the similar pace of the heart. And a number of clinical studies have shown that music reduces cortisol levels (the stress hormone), and there is also evidence that it may reduce blood pressure and heart rate. Furthermore, scientific trials using EEGs, or electroencephalograms, have demonstrated that “the slow rhythms in classical music cause the brain from Beta to Alpha activity, and rhythmic music can produce the lowest frequency [Delta] waves,” according to Dr. Lars Heslet in his article “Our Musical Brain.” Beta waves, as you may know, are the fastest of the four brain waves and occur when the mind is actively engaged, while alpha waves are lower in frequency and tend to be associated with relaxation and daydreaming. (Theta waves are slower still and are present during deep meditation, for example, while the slowest brain waves—delta—are present during deep, dreamless sleep.) Music is, on that basis alone, a good adjunct to massage in that it can enhance the relaxing effects of massage.

In addition, as I alluded at the start, music is also helpful at blocking ambient noise from one’s consciousness. For example, a study reported on in Adolescence found not only that patients who were exposed to music during or after surgery had less pain and needed less morphine, but also that random noise on the hospital ward were subdued by the music because the mind focuses on the music, thereby becoming less conscious of other noise.

But music, whether in association with a massage or not, has the potential actually to help promote healing. It has been used since the time of the ancient Greeks to calm the mentally ill and, since the invention of the phonograph, at least, to help hospital patients sleep and become less anxious before surgery. Currently, researchers within the field of psychoacoustics—defined by Mosby’s Medical Dictionary as “the branch of science concerned with the physical features of sound as it relates to the psychologic and physiologic aspects of the sense of hearing in the unimpaired ear”—are investigating the ways in which sound, especially music, can promote healing.

Much of this work involves the use of beat frequencies to influence brainwaves, in particular, binaural beats. Normally, when the brain is confronted with binaural beats—two pure tones or sine waves of similar frequency—coming one to each ear, it uses the phase difference between the two beats to provide the listener with directional information. But when such beats are received through headphones or speakers, the brain perceives them as a fluctuating rhythm. Numerous researchers have shown such rhythms to be effective in producing beneficial brain-state changes, from changes in attentional focus and levels of awareness to pain management and treatment of alcoholic depression.

Dr. Andrew Weil suggests that, because “stress and deep-seated tension are primary or aggravating causes of most cases of illness and frequently obstruct the body’s effort to return to a state of health,” using binaural beats to alter brainwave frequencies can help to “keep the mind from interfering with the healing system.” Working with a team of brainwave experts and musicians, Dr. Weil has created “psychoacoustically designed music” to promote the body’s own tendency to restore health.

You may have noticed a piece of music I sometimes play during massages that incorporates symphonic music with Tibetan bowls and other Asian instruments. This is Dr. Weil’s Symphony of Brainwaves. You probably haven’t been aware of the binaural beats incorporated into the music. Nor have you likely been conscious of your state of awareness changing during the music. I can’t say that I’ve noticed those things myself. But I can tell you that I have frequently employed this piece of music to help get me through stressful and scary doctor and dentist procedures and it has helped keep me calm and relaxed.

The study of the effects on the body of sound, including music, is a relatively new field so those looking for scientific proof of cause and effect may be disappointed. Part of the problem is that, as Dr. Weil says, “we know less about this potential of the body [to heal itself] than we should because conventional medicine is focuses so much on disease. Doctors do not collect and study cases of healing.” But the body of evidence, if you’ll excuse the pun, is growing that supports the positive effects of sound on healing. And even if music only helps you relax psychologically, it is clearly a copacetic accompaniment to the physical relaxation you experience during massage.