Studies in MS and Other Conditions

Aromatherapy has not been systematically studied in people with multiple sclerosis (MS). A small preliminary study of two people with MS reported that a treatment program of aromatherapy and massage led to improvement in mobility, dressing ability, and personal hygiene (1). Studies of olfaction in MS indicate that 10 to 20 percent of people with the disease have an impaired sense of smell.

Only a limited number of studies detail the effects of aromatherapy on any medical condition, and those that do exist are generally of low quality. Many of the therapeutic claims about aromatherapy are based on tradition, not on actual clinical research.

Symptoms of MS that have been investigated in some aromatherapy research are anxiety, depression, pain, and insomnia. For anxiety, studies of variable quality indicate that beneficial effects may be obtained with the use of lavender oil, Roman chamomile oil, and neroli (orange) oil. However, no large, well-designed clinical studies have examined this antianxiety effect. Preliminary information suggests that a lower dose of antidepressant medication may be needed by depressed men when the medication is used in combination with aromatherapy using a citrus fragrance. Lavender in bath water does not appear to relieve childbirth-associated pain. Positive and negative results have been obtained in other studies of aromatherapy and pain. Several fragrances, especially lavender, have been evaluated in sleep studies in animals and humans. Some positive results have been reported, but these studies are of variable quality.

Aromatherapy has been studied in a few other unrelated conditions. Small studies on older people with dementia have produced mixed results. Inhalation of black pepper extract may decrease the craving for cigarettes. People with a form of baldness called alopecia areata may benefit from scalp massage using a mixture of thyme, rosemary, lavender, and cedar-wood oils.

When aromatherapy is combined with massage, as is often the case, it may be difficult to distinguish the benefits of the oil from those of the massage. In limited studies, massage alone has been associated with several beneficial effects (see the "Massage" chapter).

One author of an extensive review of aromatherapy and neurologic diseases concluded: "Having spent the last decade and a half investigating the scientific basis of aromatherapy and having published more than 100 peer-reviewed articles in this area, the author does not believe that scientific literature supports or that the risk/benefit ratio justifies use of aromatherapy in neurologic conditions at present. This is a fluid position, and as more studies are performed delineating the efficacy of aromatherapy, the author expects to endorse and use aromatherapy as part of the therapeutic armamentarium" (2).

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