Essential oils for massage therapy and topical pain management are well-documented from antiquity: myrrh being the legendary example. In recent years, massage therapy has emerged as one of the most important complementary and alternative therapies for the management of a variety of ailments.
The spectrum of benefits provided by aroma-based massage therapy include arthritis, headache, back pain, and pain from cervical nerves (cervical radiculopathy). Aromatherapy massage improves cancer patients’ well-being. Hand massage with aroma oils is reportedly beneficial for menstrual pain relief. Aroma massage has proven beneficial for sleep quality among women with hypertension.
Aromatherapy Massage for Pain Relief
Massage therapy is an art and a science. The safe, non-pharmacological method of aromatherapy massage can be readily integrated into clinical practice. Well-known essential oils, such as rosemary, geranium, lavender, eucalyptus, and chamomile have been safely used. However, training and experience of aromatherapy and knowledge of the properties of essential oils used by massage personnel is critical to achieving optimal results. Massage and reflexology are simple and effective treatments that can be used to help manage pain and fatigue in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
A combination of aromatherapy massage and inhalation aromatherapy has been clinically proven to reduce burn patients’ anxiety and pain. In a clinical trial, 90 patients with osteoarthritis of the knee were studied in three groups:
1) treatment: massage with lavender oil;
2) placebo: massage with almond oil; and
3) control: without massage.
Aromatherapy massage with lavender essential oil was found most effective in relieving pain in these patients. In another clinical trial, comparing the effectiveness of aromatherapy and acupressure massage therapies on the sleep quality of women, all experimental groups (blended essential oil, lavender oil, and acupressure massage) showed significant improvements in sleep quality. However, a significantly greater improvement in sleep quality was observed in the blended essential oil groups compared with the lavender oil group. This suggests use of a blend of essential oils to be better than a single entity.
In a study to determine the effect of aromatherapy massage on quality of sleep and physiological parameters in intensive care patients, aromatherapy massage enhanced the sleep quality of patients and resulted in positive changes to their physiological parameters.
Abdominal massage with essential oils has been found to be an effective complementary method to relieve menstrual pain (dysmenorrhea).
The experience and knowledge of the massage therapist and selection of the right composition of massage oil are critical in the success of this ancient treatment method for providing relief and relaxation to the consumer.
Dermatological Safety of Massage Oils
Skin occupies a rather large surface area (~1.5 to 2.0 square meters). Exposure to any treatment with the massage oil can cause consumers perceived discomfort from erythema, irritation, and dermatitis. Even certain essential oils approved by the FDA as OTC external analgesics (for example, camphor, menthol, methyl salicylate, and turpentine oil), are classified as counter-irritants by the FDA monograph on External Analgesics Drug Products for Over-the-Counter Human Use. A number of essential oils, used as fragrances, are labelled by their INCI names on cosmetic products, which could be confusing to consumers in terms of ascertaining their dermal safety. To illustrate this further, contact dermatitis has been reported with a number of commonly used massage essential oils, including turmeric, eucalyptus and tea tree oils, lavender oil, citral (lemon oil), ylang ylang, sandalwood, and jasmine absolute. INCI names of these oils on a product label are not reflective of their common identity, hence not readily recognized by consumers.
Among 80 essential oils tested, oils from laurel, turpentine, orange, tea tree, citronella, ylang ylang, sandalwood, clove, and costus root have all shown strong contact allergy. Additionally, co-reactivity with other essential oils, fragrance compositions, and other formulation components (which could enhance their skin penetration) is rather common. Since many of these essential oils may contain 50-200 individual chemical entities it is not always possible to pinpoint cause for such allergic responses.
In view of the aforementioned concerns, patch testing of individual components of essential oil blends and fragrances to ascertain their skin safety needs serious consideration before a product use.
Natural Oils for Massage Therapy
Massage with seed oils to alleviate pain has been practiced since ancient times. The clinical data on the efficacy of such treatments is recently of scientific interest. A clinical study found massage with topical sesame oil on limb trauma patients significantly reduced pain severity.