Aromatherapy and Fibromyalgia Treatment

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Aromatherapy involves the use of essential oils from flowers, herbs, and trees as therapy to improve physical health and well-being. Essential oils are scented liquids that are removed from plants by using steam or pressure. They contain the chemicals that naturally give the plant its “essence,” or fragrance. Examples of some essential oils commonly used in aromatherapy include peppermint, eucalyptus, ylang ylang, chamomile, geranium, lavender, lemon, cedarwood, and rosemary. The different chemical structures of each oil affect how it is processed within the body. First studied by a French chemist in the early 1900s, aromatherapy has steadily gained popularity in Western countries since the 1980s.

Aromatherapy is administered in different ways, including inhalation (direct and indirect) and dilution (massage oils, water sprays, bath salts, lotions and creams). A individual may indirectly breathe in the essential oils by using a diffuser or placing drops of the oil nearby. The oils evaporate very quickly allowing the individual to breathe in the fragrance. Another method is by direct inhalation, during which the individual breathes in essential oils via an steam inhaler. Drops of the oil are floated on top of hot water and the individual inhales the scented steam. This method is commonly used to treat sinus headaches and respiratory symptoms. Sometimes the oils are diluted and massaged into the skin, a process referred to as aromatherapy massage, or applied to the skin by combining them with lotions or bath salts. The oils must be diluted to ensure safety, slow down their rate of evaporation, and increase the amount of surface area that can be covered.

Direct inhalation is believed to have psychological effects that stimulate or sedate various organs within the body. Also, by coming into contact with the lining of the nose and the lung tissue, the chemicals in the airborne oil particulates have easy access to the bloodstream (as the nasal lining and lung tissue have a rich blood supply). It is by entering the bloodstream and gaining access to the tissues and organs of the body that essential oils are believed to work. Direct skin application, either through lotions/creams or massage, are believed to work by inducing relaxation and providing psychological benefits.

Certain essential oils are used to treat specific conditions. For example, peppermint is commonly used to treat headaches and muscle aches, while geranium is used to help depression and balance female hormones. Lavender is useful for skin care. However, variations in oil combinations and lack of standardized training for  aromatherapists makes the effectiveness of aromatherapy difficult to study from a research standpoint.

Patients with Fibromyalgia are encouraged by the National Fibromyalgia Association (NFA) to incorporate both traditional Western medicine (e.g., medications, physical therapy) as well as complementary and alternative therapies (e.g., aromatherapy, acupuncture) into their treatment plans. The NFA also asked the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) to prepare an article on the use of aromatherapy for the treatment of Fibromyalgia. Various high-level aromatherapists within the organization were interviewed for the purposes of the article. They were asked numerous questions, including their preferred essential oil combinations as well as their histories of successes and failures treating patients. Of the five aromatherapists interviewed, each had distinctly different and unique essential oil combinations that they preferred to use for treating patients with Fibromyalgia, as well as different track records of success. Several had strong anecdotal evidence to support the use of aromatherapy as a treatment for Fibromyalgia, but the essential oil combinations and methods used varied. This illustrates the highly individualized nature of aromatherapy as well as the difficulty in studying the effectiveness of particular oils.

Nevertheless, according to Shellie Enteen of the NAHA, who authored the article for NFA, the following oils are useful to treat the symptoms associated with Fibromyalgia:

  • Pain relief: spike lavender, sweet marjoram, lavender, petitgrain, Roman and German chamomile, clary sage, lemongrass, helichrysum, peppermint, ginger and black pepper. Spike lavender with peppermint and helichrysum together have anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Stress / Anxiety:  rose otto, frankincense, clary sage, sweet orange, bergamot, grapefruit, ylang ylang, sandalwood, neroli, sweet marjoram, petitgrain, mandarin, lavender, rose geranium, tangerine, jasmine.
  • Sleep Improvement:  lavender, neroli, jasmine, marjoram, Roman chamomile.
  • Feeling of harmony and safety: frankincense, lavender, rose, mandarin, neroli, helichrysum.
  • Headaches:  lavender, peppermint, marjoram, Roman chamomile.
  • Increased circulation: rosemary, ginger, black pepper, peppermint, lemongrass, rose geranium.

Ms. Enteen does note, however, that the best blend will likely be specific to the individual patient and their needs.

Medical Literature

There is scant research available in the medical literature regarding the use of aromatherapy to treat the symptoms associated with Fibromyalgia, and available findings are mixed.

A recent study by Chien et al. studied the effect of lavender aromatherapy in middle-aged women with insomnia. Although not conducted in patients with Fibromyalgia, their findings have relevance to the Fibromyalgia population due to the common occurrence of sleep disturbances among Fibromyalgia sufferers. In this study, the authors administered 12 weeks of lavender aromatherapy (indirect inhalation, twice per week, 20 minutes per treatment) to 34 women with insomnia. A control group of 33 women received a health education program designed to improve sleep but received no aromatherapy. The researchers found significant improvements in sleep quality and heart rate among those in the aromatherapy group when compared to controls, however this difference was short-lived and no differences between groups were found at one and three months following the study. The authors concluded that lavender aromatherapy may have short-term benefits for heart rate and sleep quality among individuals with insomnia (Chien et al., 2012).

In 2007,  Rutledge and Jones published the findings of their study to determine the effects of essential oils used in conjunction with a 12 week exercise program on exercise volume, pain, physical performance and function in female Fibromyalgia patients. This randomized clinical trial (a study design regarded as the “gold standard” design for research studies) used a commercially-available mixture of camphor, eucalyptus, aloe vera, peppermint, rosemary, lemon and orange oils. Twenty women were randomly assigned to apply the oil prior to exercise and at bedtime on exercise days, while the 20 control subjects were asked to apply a “sham” oil that had no aromatherapeutic properties. At the end of the study, the researchers found no differences between the two groups with regard to the exercise volume or pain intensity. While the authors did find a small increase in physical function among the aromatherapy group, it was not significant.

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References

1.        Chien LW, Cheng SL, Liu CF. The effect of lavender aromatherapy on autonomic nervous system in midlife women with insomnia. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2012;2012:740813. Epub 2011 Aug 18.

2.      Rutledge DN, Jones CJ. Effects of topical essential oil on exercise volume after a 12-week exercise program for women with Fibromyalgia: a pilot study. J Altern Complement Med. 2007;13(10):1099-1106.

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