Which beneficial effects might aromatherapy have for people with SCI?

Plants and their extracts have been used for healing purposes across different cultures for thousands of years. The uses and benefits of medicinal plants have been documented through ancient artworks and writings on rocks, slates, papyri, and books. Some cultures passed the knowledge about the plants just orally from one generation to another.

Today, the traditional use of plants and their extracts for medicinal purposes is “only” considered as a complementary treatment to orthodox medicine. Nevertheless, it is still practised all over the world. One form which we will present to you today is aromatherapy.

Aromatherapy: an ancient holistic therapy

The history of aromatherapy dates back to more than 60,000 years ago, according to the findings in a burial site of a Neanderthal skeleton. The Egyptians were among the first to practice and also document the use of aromatherapy. Evidence of aromatherapy use is recorded among the ancient Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Indians, Native Americans, Arabians and Africans. Here is a short history of aromatherapy in two well-done videos:

The term “aromatherapy” was coined by a French perfumer and chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse. He discovered the healing power of lavender in 1910 when he experienced an explosion in his laboratory, which resulted in severe burning of his hand. He treated the burns he sustained with lavender oil; after some days he found that the sore was healed tremendously.

What are aromatherapy, essential oils, and aromatherapy massage?

The International Federation of Aromatherapists defines aromatherapy as “an ancient art and science of blending naturally extracted essential oils to balance and promote the health of the body, mind, and spirit”. AromatherapyCombining essential oil with the benefits of massage therapy to promote relaxation, well-being, and healing is called aromatherapy massage. In this video you can see how it looks like:

Essential oils used in aromatherapy are extracted from aromatic plant parts like flowers, roots, resin, seeds and fruits. Every essential oil has a unique aroma and beneficial properties.

Essential oils are usually concentrated and should not be applied to the body directly because it might irritate the skin. Usually, essential oils are diluted with other substances like oil, lotion or alcohol before any form of use. Learn more about the correct use of essential oils in this video:

Aromatherapy for people with spinal cord injury

Many people with spinal cord injury (SCI) experience chronic pain, sleep problems, anxiety, and depression. Studies on people without SCI have shown that aromatherapy with essential oils can have various effects on health. In particular, it was found to be beneficial in managing depressive symptoms, anxiety and sleep problems. Therefore, introducing aromatherapy as a complementary therapy might also help people with SCI to manage these problems better. However, so far there are only very few studies that have investigated the benefits of aromatherapy for people with SCI.

Regarding essential oils, some are considered particularly useful for people with SCI because certain properties are attributed to them. It must be considered, however, that many of these proposed effects are not yet proven by scientific evidence.

  • Jasmine: may increase alertness, uplift mood and thus help treat symptoms of depression
  • Lavender: may help reduce spasticity and anxiety, promote relaxation, and induce sleep
  • Rosemary: may relieve respiratory disorders thanks to its antiseptic properties
  • Ylang-ylang: thanks to its calming effect, it may relieve stress, involuntary muscle contractions, and decrease blood pressure
  • Chamomile: may improve one’s quality of sleep thanks to its soothing, sedative effect
  • Eucalyptus: may help against stuffiness, promote circulation, and relieve muscle and joint pain
  • Peppermint: may help to cough out mucus and is the only essential oil that is licensed for medicinal use, mainly for digestive problems.

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Shortcomings of aromatherapy

Aromatherapy has some shortcomings and controversies due to the lack of robust studies to prove its safety and its long-term efficacy for many health problems. For example, it is not proven to be an effective complementary therapy for reducing neuropathic or chronic pain. Besides, earlier studies debunked the efficacy of aromatherapy for the treatment of anxiety because it showed no long-term beneficial effect. The lack of good scientific evidence and conflicting studies about the health benefits of aromatherapy make it difficult to pinpoint its actual efficacy.

Also, the use of essential oil in aromatherapy massage may cause adverse effects on health. For example, lavender, peppermint, tea tree oil and ylang-ylang can cause mild to severe dermatitis. Aromatherapy could be harmful to pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and to people who suffer from epilepsy, bleeding nose, skin problems and high blood pressure. Inhalation or other use of essential oil may result in serious allergy in asthmatic people. All these groups of people are advised to consult their doctors before using essential oils.

To conclude, these shortcomings of aromatherapy do not change the fact that, like other complementary therapies, it is perceived as helpful by many people worldwide. Therefore, if you are interested, you just might try it out and see for yourself if it is beneficial for you – always under the instruction of an experienced therapist, of course.

What experiences do you have with aromatherapy? If none, would you give it a try?

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