In all these years, I have yet to write a word about aromatherapy on PainScience.com, but there is a key reference in the bibliography: a review of other reviews, from the indefatigable Dr. Edzard Ernst, the first and best of alternative medicine apostates. Back in 2012, Ernst et al. found ten publications worth considering, only three of them any good, and even those were reviews of mostly quite low quality trials: “garbage in, garbage out” strikes again. The result was the inevitable inconclusive and/or negative: not much data in the first place, and what does exist is not convincing. Technically inconclusive, but not promising.
But wait, what’s this now? Thanks to the black art of Actually Reading the Paper®, I found a positive statement about the results about massage and pain!
“Our overview suggests that aromatherapy, which generally delivered with massage therapy, may induce relaxation which, in turn, might improve pain and psychological health.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement there, but a perfectly nice “might be something to it.” And I agree, for whatever my agreement is worth: I don’t really have any doubt that a pleasing smell can probably move the needle for pain patients a bit. I wouldn’t ever think of it a “treatment,” though — it’s just one of the more obscure instruments in an orchestra of peaceful sensations which can, temporarily, help to modulate pain. I never utilized aromatherapy in my massage therapy practice, back in the day, for one simple reason: that particular instrument is prone to unexpected sour notes. It is all too easy to accidentally ruin a whole session with an aroma that isn’t at all pleasing for the patient. Aromatherapy can irritate people at least as easily as it can soothe them (probably more easily). I just never thought it was worth the risk.
And now I have written 300 words about aromatherapy, which is probably as much as I ever will.