The Use of Aromatherapy for Chronic Pain
by Susan Burgess
Previous to completing my Aromatherapy Diploma and Advanced Diploma of Aromatherapy during 2008, I have worked as a Registered Nurse including positions in Nurse Education and Nursing Administration, Rehabilitation and Sport’s Medicine Centres. I also hold qualifications in NLP and Hypnosis and as a Reiki Master.
For the duration of my time in traditional health care settings I have always provided holistic care to those that I was caring for. Years ago this often created some animosity with my peers even though the term holistic healing dated back to the ancient Egyptians. Yes, my entry into the nursing profession was many years ago when alternative and complimentary care were often considered way outside the realms and not accepted by many traditional medical practitioners.
Constantly I witnessed numerous people being admitted and readmitted to hospital with a diagnosis of “chronic pain”, many of them having developed some degree of knowledge due to their many admissions and some just having a belief that the doctor would be able to provide some magic potion for immediate healing to take place, but more often than not the immediate healing never eventuated. At first the increasing statistics of these admissions disillusioned me regarding my nursing career, often considering walking away. However through my commitment to many associates I commenced an incredible journey of discovery and fought hard to be able to use different healing modalities within the framework of traditional medicine and nursing care. This journey has extended for many years, covering the magic and miracles of medicine through the ages and our ability now to use complimentary health care modalities alongside traditional health care practices for the benefit of the client.
Today I conduct treatment programs from my specifically designed clinic, aimed primarily for those people experiencing chronic pain. These programs are individually designed and incorporate the use of any of, hydrotherapy, aromatherapy, meditation, Reiki, NLP, hypnotherapy as well as electro-reflex stimulation and tens machine.
This dissertation covers my programs for those clients receiving aromatherapy for their chronic pain.
Firstly – What is pain?
Webster’s New World Medical Dictionary explains pain as an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience that is associated with real or potential damage to any of the body’s tissue.
There are two types of pain that people experience, being acute pain and chronic pain.
Acute pain is often referred to as a warning pain. It’s a pain that acts as an alert telling the person that something is wrong with their body. The pain is a result of the body’s sensors sending messages to the unconscious mind. This type of pain usually comes on suddenly and it may be accompanied by anxiety and emotional distress. Acute pain can be associated with an injury, inflammation, other disease process or following surgical intervention. Acute pain can stop the person from carrying out normal activity. The earlier the intervention occurs, the quicker the recovery period. In some instances acute pain may become chronic pain and it is in this area that I will discuss the role of aromatherapy as an alternative or as an aid to conventional medical and nursing care.
Secondly – What is chronic pain?
Again in referring to Webster’s New World Medical Dictionary, it provides a definition of chronic pain as being pain that persists or continues to progress over a long period of time and is often resistant to medical intervention. Chronic pain is widely believed to represent disease and it is therefore often associated with a long term incurable condition. Chronic pain can be further affected by environmental and psychological factors. Chronic pain may be related to a number of different medical conditions including diabetes, arthritis, migraine, fibromyalgia, cancer, shingles, sciatica, and previous trauma or injury. Chronic pain affects people in different ways, very often being the cause of their inability to work, a loss of appetite and also any degree of physical activity creating aggravation to the already present pain. . The most common chronic pain complaints include headache, low back pain, cancer pain, arthritis pain and psychogenic pain.
The majority of chronic pain signals are reported as originating in the spinal cord or the peripheral nerves. Pain from the body’s extremities and other parts of the body are carried to the spinal cord by the nervous system. It has also been discovered, scientifically, that the brain receives pain signals from the spinal cord and also experiences changes in neuronal connections that might possibly signify a permanent strengthening of the brain’s reactions to the pain signals.
Chronic pain as with acute pain may be physical or emotional.
The majority of those suffering chronic pain will also present with depression. The causes of chronic pain can stem from any number of medical conditions or as a result of an injury. Some people suffer chronic pain, even when no specific physical cause can be found. Traditional pain medications often serve the symptoms — but with serious side effects on a long-term basis, during which chronic pain tends to persist.
The Link between Chronic Pain and Stress
For those suffering chronic pain, evidence shows that many of them will suffer from hopelessness and depression. So many become permanently dependant on medically prescribed pharmaceuticals including narcotics and some will develop secondary health problems such as sleep and anxiety disorders. All of these effects point to actual changes within the brain.
A Brief History of Aromatherapy
In 1928 a Frenchman by the name of Henri Maurice Gattefosse used the word “Aromatherapie” to describe his unplanned use of lavender essential oil to cool an accidental burn he had suffered in his perfumery laboratory. His burn healed quick and without scarring allowing him to compile the evidence regarding the use of aromatic components of plants to assist the healing process. He has since been acknowledged as the “father” of modern Aromatherapy not because he was the first to uncover the benefits of plant and their healing properties, but because he started the modern day scientific documentation process showing the benefits of Aromatherapy through the use of Essential Oils.
Aromatherapy no doubt originated in the times of Antiquity, long before any record keeping took place with the earliest pictorial association with aromatherapy being images on the walls of the Lascaux caves in France which are believed to be dated back to 18,000 B.C. Records provide us with the knowledge that aromatherapy can be traced back to Ancient Egypt, India and Greece. Hippocrates over 2,000 years ago referred to aromatic bathing and scented massage as being beneficial in restoring and maintaining physical and mental health. For centuries many civilizations recognized the benefits of using herbs and flowers to cure many different diseases and from the 1400’s to the 1600’s, the French used rosemary and Lavender to sanitize hospital wards. The key developments early in the 20th Century have given to us Aromatherapy as we know it today which during our current time continues to increase in popularity throughout the world.
The Benefit of Essential Oils in an Aromatherapy Treatment
The principal component of an aromatherapy treatment is the use of the pure Essential Oils that can be delivered to the client via a wide range of ways including, but not limited to, massage, inhalation, baths, room sprays, diffusers, scented candles, compresses, body gels and lotions.
Essential Oils are the pure essences extracted from many different aromatic plants which contain enormously precious medicinal healing properties. When used therapeutically they provide remarkable healing results and rebalancing effects on the physical body, chakras, meridians, and higher spiritual bodies, as well as the emotions.
Through skin penetration the Essential Oils are delivered to the cell membranes and diffuse throughout the blood and tissues. Essential Oils can enhance circulation and immune function.
As humans our sense of smell plays a vital role in our overall sense of well-being and quality of life; it is the most powerful stimulus to ones memory or unconscious mind as the sense of smell bypasses the conscious mind to arrive at the automatic or unconscious mind. The olfactory nerve located inside the nose is responsible for carrying the impulses from what we smell from our nose to the Limbic System of our brain. This section of the brain is responsible for several things including our moods and our memories. The Limbic System is also responsible, when stimulated through odour to engage other body systems to release and balance hormones and other neuro-chemicals.
It is the use of the pure essential oil in aromatherapy that triggers this reaction on the olfactory nerves.
The Benefits of Using Essential Oils for a Client presenting with Chronic Pain and who may or may not be suffering the added symptoms related to stress.
Aromatherapy using essential oils provides an alternative to prescription medications for those suffering with chronic pain. Essential oils are at least 50 times more concentrated than the plants that provide them, with one drop of essential oil representing approximately one ounce of the plant. An Aromatherapist will generally administer these oils for those suffering with chronic pain through several basic methods, I personally use just two methods being massage and essential oils added to the Hydrotherapy Spa or for their own bath.
The benefits will be discussed individually:
A massage using essential oils maximizes the healing power of the massage by providing a powerful calming or energizing effect, depending on the oil that is chosen and the movements used by the therapist. The massage movements activate the nerve endings and stimulate the circulation of the blood to the skin, which in turn then increases the absorption of the essential oils. As well, the massage aids in stimulating the release of toxins through the lymphatic system.
The scents from the essential oils also encourage the brain to produce signals to relax. In the instance of cancer patients, aromatherapy studies have shown that symptoms such as nausea, pain, blood pressure, pulse, and respiratory rates have all been relaxed in response to the use of essential oils, especially in massage.
By applying the correct pressure during the massage the chronically stressed muscles become relaxed and the client can also experience a revitalized feeling of mind, body and spirit. The massage techniques used are effleurage, petrissage, gentle friction and vibration. Depending on the client’s wishes I may also incorporate the use of Reiki during the massage session. I also encourage my clients to have a relaxing Indian Head Massage to complete their massage visit as this is an effective finish to their treatment allowing stress relieve and promoting greater relaxation.
Aromatherapy using therapeutic essential oils is a holistic therapy to balance the body, mind and spirit. The utilization of essential oils balances the emotions and uplifts the spirits. The oils have psychotherapeutic effects as well as physiological effects on the body, relieving the stress as well as the chronic pain.
Initially massages need to be attended on a regular basis, three times a week being recommended, then bi-weekly or weekly, depending on each individual.
The oils that I have found to be the most beneficial for massaging a client who present with chronic pain are:
- Lavender – which has properties that include, antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic
- Black Pepper – analgesic, stimulates metabolism, antimicrobial, antifungal, diuretic, laxative, stimulant
- Chamomile – which has properties that include anti-inflammatory, antiallergenic, digestive, relaxant, antidepressant
- Marjoram – antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic
- Rosemary – stimulates and improves circulation, relieves pain, decongestant
- Tea tree – anti-fungal, anti-yeast, antibacterial
- Cypress – astringent, stimulates circulation, antiseptic, astringent
- Peppermint – digestive, clears sinuses, antiseptic, decongestant, stimulant
- Eucalyptus – decongestant, antiviral, antibacterial, stimulant
- Bergamot – antidepressant, anti-parasitic, anti-inflammatory
- Geranium – balancing to mind and body, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory
The oils chosen for each clients massage are decided after an initial full personal history has been taken. It is during this initial consultation that I am able to utilize many NLP skills to gather every bit of knowledge about the person and their pain. Clinical records are maintained for all clients.
For those clients who attend on a regular basis for massage, the oils used are changed on a regular basis. I use three different oils from the preceding list for each massage, however whenever possible I use Black Pepper in my initial mixes for its benefit to increase circulation, relieve muscle pain and tension as well as being beneficial for relieving anger, frustration and emotional blocks.
2. Essential Oils for Hydrotherapy Spa or for addition to client’s bath
Hydrotherapy is said to be one of the oldest forms of therapy around. Whirlpools, water spas, swimming pools, and even the bathtub are all forms of hydrotherapy.
The temperature of the water and the speed that the water moves can help relax tense muscles and relieve swelling associated with inflammation and pain. Gentle water exercises using the resistance of the water can also help build strength and flexibility, all this with just a few minutes of therapy.
Exercising in water has been reported on for many years regarding its benefits for musculoskeletal conditions as well as general wellbeing.
Hydrotherapy, or the home bath tub applies heat to the body, aids muscle stimulation, and brighten the spirits. I believe that no scientific research is needed for these benefits: the instinctive comfort of settling into your bath tub filled with warm water and the right amount of essential oils whittles away any stresses and pain. By the addition of essential oils to the Hydrotherapy Spa or the bath tub one can be enhanced by the feeling of internal warming and an improved blood circulation. Once essential oils are added to water they are dispersed and incorporated into the body by both nasal and skin.
I encourage clients to use this method in-between their massages. When using essential oils in the home bath-tub, clients are encouraged to have assistance to enter and exit the bath so as to avoid further injury. I always premix the oils for the client, diluting them in a carrier oil such as almond or peach kernel. Oil mixes of choice include Lavender as it contains sedative compounds to help relax the central nervous system, Juniper as it relieves stiff or sore muscles and alleviates swelling from gout and arthritis.
Rosemary can be included as it stimulates a feeling of well-being, improves circulation, metabolism, lowers blood pressure and relieves migraines and mental fatigue. Clinical notes are recorded based on the clients stated benefits they have received from using the oils in this manner at home.
Clients using the Hydrotherapy Spa are being assisted with specific exercises and I find the most beneficial mix being Lavender, Juniper and Geranium with salts specifically mixed for the Hydrotherapy Spa. This allows the client to be relaxed when they are immersed into the Spa they express a feeling of calmness and are ready for their exercise program, the Juniper and Geranium adding further benefit for their muscles as the oil is absorbed through the skin.
There has been numerous research studies conducted to analyze the changes in quantitative pain sensitivity and overall outcome following Aromatherapy treatments for those suffering chronic pain. Many of these studies show that the pain intensity and pain unpleasantness are reduced following the use of specific essential oils. There are also those studies that indicate that effectiveness cannot be totally contributed to a lasting analgesic effect.
The clients I have provided therapy to, to date, have all experienced a reduction in the level of prescribed pain medications that they are using as well them reporting that the time span between them requiring to take these medications is gradually increasing.
To know that these clients are experiencing less pain, are having less prescribed medications, are experiencing less stress and feel that they are being treated as a “whole” being is all the research that I personally need to know that Aromatherapy is a benefit to those with chronic pain.
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