Health system to patients: Get a whiff of this...aromatherapy in hospitals

July 23, 2007

Aromatherapy is a complementary and alternative medicine offering patients of a large Indianapolis health system some relief from the stress associated with chronic illnesses, including cancer, and women's health issues.

Aromatherapists use what they call "essential oils" in their attempt to boost the immune system by reducing stress and pain. An essential oil is a liquid that is generally distilled, usually by steam or water, from the leaves, stems, flowers, bark, roots, or other parts of plants. Most are clear, but some are amber or yellow. They are inhaled and applied to the skin through massage or baths.

The idea behind aromatherapy is simple, said Pam Conrad, R.N., the clinical aromatherapist and complimentary medicine consultant hired by Wellspring and CHN. "We see this service as a form of alternative therapy, focusing primarily on the problem of stress," she said.

Conrad was trained in aromatherapy in complementary care clinics in Europe, where the practice is more widespread than in this country. She is paid by the health system, which charges outpatients $40 for a 45-minute consultation. The products and services she offers through Wellspring include:

A study of 8,058 mothers in childbirth is the largest research initiative in the use of aromatherapy within a healthcare setting. Published in February 2000 in the journal Complementary Therapies in Nursing and Midwifery (now named Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice), the eight-year study found "little direct evidence that the practice of aromatherapy per se reduces the need for pain relief during labor, or the incidence of operative delivery. But a key finding of this study suggests that two essential oils, clary sage and chamomile, are effective in alleviating pain. The evidence from this study suggests that aromatherapy can be effective in reducing maternal anxiety, fear, and/or pain during labor."

The study also found that "the use of aromatherapy appeared to facilitate a further reduction in the use of systemic opioids in the study center from 6% in 1990 to 0.4% in 1997 (per woman)."

"Most essential oils are safe, but precautions should be observed for patients with high blood pressure, epilepsy, cancer, allergies, and pregnancy, among others," said Conrad. "That's why consultation is so important. For example, proper use requires that essential oils be properly diluted."

According to a brochure provided by Wellspring to its patients, "because the essential oils are so sweet-smelling, many people suppose their value is essentially one of charm and fragrance, but this is a mistake. Modern scientific research has proven that essential oils are potent, with remarkable medicinal properties. These substances are very complex in their chemistry, and very powerful."

Examples of essential oils and their uses include:

"We believe this can be a valuable service to our clients," said Heitholt. "And we take care to sell essential oils that are very pure, only of the highest quality. Our patients determine for themselves the long-term value."

THE AUTHOR is a writer based in Gettysburg, Pa.