There is a lack of research to support the effectiveness of using aromatherapy in the treatment of chronic back pain. Which is not to say aromatherapy is ineffective. Aromatherapy simply that it needs to be studied more. However, the results from the small studies currently underway are positive. What little evidence is out there shows that aromatherapy has potential benefits as a complementary therapy for chronic pain.
Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of essential oils. Essential oils are naturally occurring oils that exist in flowers, leaves, wood, bark, roots, seeds or peels. A distilling process concentrates the oils until they are strong smelling. They are then applied topically on the body and/or can be diffused using heat or humidifiers. Aromatherapy stimulates the brain in certain ways to promote everything from relaxation to a greater sense of focus. In order to understand the effects of aromatherapy on chronic pain, it is important to understand how smell affects the brain.
On the human evolutionary timeline, smell developed before hearing and sight. It is a chemical sense that reacts to odors and then sends electrical impulses to the brain. These chemicals are processed by the olfactory bulb in the brain. The olfactory bulb is a part of the limbic system of the brain. The limbic system is the oldest part of human cognitive functioning. This includes the amygdala and hippocampus. These are the parts of the brain that affect behaviour, mood and memory. The limbic system affects emotions as well. This is important to note when looking at chronic pain, especially when it may be the result of psychosomatic pain.
Psychosomatic Back Pain
In an attempt to avoid psychological stress or pain, the brain will sometimes refer pain elsewhere in the body. This is known as psychosomatic pain. It is common to experience psychosomatic pain in the back. Psychosomatic pain often shows up as chronic pain. It may or may not be the result of a preexisting injury or condition. Psychosomatic pain is difficult to diagnose and as such often gets misdiagnosed. Unlike a real injury, psychosomatic pain is not manageable using conventional medications and rehabilitation. Back pain that occurs as a result of psychological stress needs to be addressed through psychological and emotional well-being. This is where aromatherapy may prove to be an effective complement to other therapies.
Aromatherapy and Back Pain
BioMed Research International did a study on the effects of aromatherapy in a group of elderly individuals. Researchers were trying to understand whether aromatherapy could help in the treatment of pain, depression, anxiety and stress. The study lasted four weeks and was intended to be a nonpharmacological intervention for managing pain in older persons. At the end of the month, participants reported significantly lower levels of stress. So this supports the idea that aromatherapy can be an effective complementary therapy to help maintain psychological health.
Possible Side Effects
Despite the essential oils being ‘natural,’ there can still be side effects when using them. Possible side effects include allergic reactions when placed on the skin as well as skin irritation. As certain scents can be very stimulating for the brain, researchers cannot yet say how safe they are for at-risk populations. This included pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as children. It is important to note that essential oils are not for internal use. There is also the possibility of essential oils reacting with certain medications. To be safe, be sure to consult a doctor or trained aromatherapist before using essential oils to treat back pain.
In conclusion, smell is a powerful sense that directly affects emotions and psychological well-being. For this reason, aromatherapy is a viable complementary therapy chronic back pain management. This is especially true when applied to cases where chronic back pain is the result of psychosomatic pain. While it still needs to be researched more, there is enough evidence to support the use of aromatherapy in pain management. It is important to note that aromatherapy is not suitable to be used as a sole therapy in the treatment of back pain. Rather, it may help to further relieve pain in individuals who are undergoing other treatments or medications. Always consult a medical practitioner prior to beginning any complementary therapies involving aromatherapy.
Dowdey, Sarah. “How Smell Works.” October 29, 2007. Accessed December 26, 2016. http://health.howstuffworks.com/mental-health/human-nature/perception/smell.htm.
Mayo Foundation. “Consumer Health What Are the Benefits of Aromatherapy?” February 5, 2015. Accessed December 26, 2016. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/expert-answers/aromatherapy/faq-20058566.
Tang, Shuk Kwan and M. Mimi Y. Tse. “Aromatherapy: Does It Help to Relieve Pain, Depression, Anxiety, and Stress in Community-Dwelling Older Persons?” July 13, 2014. Accessed December 26, 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4119713/.