Why aromatherapy is showing up in hospital surgical units

Essential oils are surging in popularity, but what does the research say? Find out from Mayo Clinic experts how botanical extracts could help you.

By Stacy M. Peterson

Do scents have the power to ease your pain or boost your mood?

Is aromatherapy a fad or an important part of a holistic approach to healing?

Is your nose a pathway to your brain?

Experts are looking at questions like these and discovering that potent, plant-based scents may just have a place in the science of health and healing.

As many people look for natural (and safe) remedies for trouble sleeping, chronic pain and more, essential oils such as lavender, jasmine, ginger and spearmint are surging in popularity.

It's true that the research is limited. But some small studies do suggest that aromatherapy can be beneficial. And when it comes down to it, how you feel may be the most important thing: Many people report that essential oils help them feel better by easing nausea, soothing sore muscles or promoting relaxation after a stressful day.

What exactly is an 'essential' oil?

Essential oils are extracted from flowers, fruits, leaves or seeds to capture the aromatic "essence" of the plants that they come from. The result is a super-concentrated oil that can be breathed in, massaged on, or added to lotions or bath water.

The idea is that these botanical scents target smell receptors in the nose, triggering effects that pass through the nervous system to the brain. When absorbed by the skin, some oils are also thought to have antifungal or antibacterial effects.

A word of caution: Some manufacturers sell essential oils that can be taken internally, but the practice is controversial since safety research is limited.

Can it help with pain management?

It might. Researchers looking at aromatherapy as a way to help with pain after surgery have found that those who try it not only have better pain management, but also report higher overall satisfaction with their care. Of course, essential oils are just one part of a post-op pain management plan.

Women in labor have also reported positive results using scents such as rose, lavender and frankincense. In one study, these scents seemed to help ease anxiety and fear, and reduce the need for pain medications.

Does it support better sleep?

Chamomile tea and lavender lotion at bedtime are well-known sleep promoters. But do they actually work? Studies of hospital patients would say yes; they've documented that these scents can encourage relaxation and improve sleep.

Even professional caregivers can benefit. In a study of nurses working rotating shifts, participants slept better after an aromatherapy massage at the end of a graveyard shift.

Oct. 27, 2017 See more In-depth