The ancient practice of aromatherapy is finding its way into modern medicine as a way to relieve stress, facilitate sleep and even reduce pain in patients.
Eighteen staff members, mostly nurses, at Harris Methodist Fort Worth Hospital are certified as clinical aromatherapy practitioners and offer the complementary therapy at no cost to the patient.
The oils used in aromatherapy are distilled from lavender, rosemary, clary sage, cypress needle and other plants known to have therapeutic properties when inhaled and absorbed into the skin using a light massage. Essential oils are 75 to 100 times more potent than their natural plants, and generally use a milder carrier oil, like almond oil, to overcome the effects of their concentration levels.
Hospital staff say the therapy has been especially effective with trauma and oncology patients, those suffering from substance abuse withdrawal and patients with high-risk pregnancies. For the latter, sleeping in a hospital setting is particularly difficult.
“Most are suffering from anxiety, insomnia or situational depression,” says Susan Shields, MBA, RN, NE-BC, director of the cancer program at Harris Methodist and a certified clinical aromatherapy consultant.
When Shields enters a patient’s room, she asks those interested in the therapy about their symptoms. She then gives patients four or five different essential oils from the 33 used at the hospital and asks the patient to choose the oils that are most appealing. Shields makes a mixture of those oils and conducts a patch test on his or her skin to make sure it isn’t sensitive to the oils.
Shields then applies the mixture on the patient’s feet and hands using the “M” technique. The light massage was invented by Jane Buckle, RN, PhD, a pioneer in aromatherapy who helped bring essential oils into the clinical setting.
“It’s a very light touch, on a scale of one to ten it’s a three,” Shields says. If a family member is in the room with the patient, Shields will teach the technique to that person as well.
“The patient is usually asleep within 30 or 45 minutes,” Shields says.
Kim Iorizzo, a high-risk mother who spent more than a month at Harris Methodist this summer, says the aromatherapy was very beneficial. “Yesterday was the first time I’ve been able to take a nap longer than like 10 minutes,” Iorizzo says.
Trauma patient Stephanie Dezem, who was hit by a drunk driver this summer in an automobile accident that cracked her pelvis and four ribs, also says she received benefits from aromatherapy at Harris.
“It eases the pain, but really relaxes you more so you think less about the pain,” she says.
Still in its infancy in hospital settings in the United States, the practice of using essential oils is starting to gain strength through clinical studies, according to Buckle, director of RJ Buckle Associates in the United Kingdom.
“I think the use of clinical aromatherapy will grow hugely in the next few years as more studies are published about the use of essential oils by nurses in hospitals,” she says.
Studies already have found that inhaled Mentha piperita reduces the need for Zofran in chemo-induced nausea, she said. Also, the M technique, with or without essential oils such as frankincense or lavender, can be effective in reducing terminal agitation at the end of life, Buckle says.
Essential oil therapy also can work on medical personnel. One recent study done at Harris Methodist showed that more than 57% of nurses working in the intensive care unit at the hospital reported a decrease in perceived stress levels after using the essential oils from lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and clary sage (Salvia Sclarea). Both oils have been shown to calm stress and anxiety in past research.
The study was a requirement for the certified course on aromatherapy taught at the hospital, says Erin Pemberton, BSN, RN, CPAN, LMT, CCAP, an ICU nurse at Harris who recently took the course.
Her study, which was published in the March/April 2008 issue of Holistic Nursing Practice, measured the stress level of nurses working in the intensive care unit of the hospital.
“We suffer from a lot of stress,” Pemberton says. “I wanted to see what combination of essential oils might help.”
Pemberton says she plans to continue her study on nurses. A trauma surgeon at Harris is currently studying the affects of aromatherapy on pain, as well.
The certified aromatherapy course began in 2004 and has graduated 50 health care professionals, including nurses, physicians, physical therapists and pharmacists, Shields says. The course is taught by four certified instructors and takes 250 hours.
Harris Methodist also has a Healing Arts Center where patients, staff or the general public can receive various forms of massage, reflexology and clinical aromatherapy. Shields credits the hospital administration for approving the use of the aromatherapy course and the free service for patients.
“We’ve had extraordinary administrative support that sees the value of aromatherapy as a complementary therapy—not used instead of medical therapy,” Shields says. “Not many other hospitals are able to work it into their therapies.”
Aromatherapy practitioners warn that while essential oils can be beneficial, they can also be damaging.
“In Germany you need a prescription to buy essential oils,” Shields says. “They have side effects and can be abused. You want to know exactly what you’re doing with it.”
Shields recommends purchasing essential oils only at places that can provide a gaschromatograph analysis of the oils, like www.NaturesGift.com, based in Madison, Tenn.
“That tells us exactly the chemical composition of that batch of oils,” she says.