2. Aromatherapy massage


What is it? Aromatherapy is based on the principle that a specific mix of highly concentrated distilled plant oils (known as essential oils), when absorbed into the body, can heal certain illnesses and ailments and promote a feeling of relaxation and well-being. Aromatherapy is probably the most widely used (and some practitioners would say, abused) of all alternative therapies: adulterated essential oils are often marketed and sold as panaceas.

Aromatherapists use the oils blended together and diluted with a carrier vegetable oil for massage, inhalation and bathing. Massage is considered to be the most effective form of the therapy. It relaxes the muscular and nervous systems and stimulates the blood and lymphatic systems.

What does it treat? Aromatherapy is most suited to stress-related disorders such as digestive problems, fatigue, insomnia, tension headaches, fluid retention, anxiety and mild depression. However, it is also used as a treatment for flu, colds, chronic fatigue, neck and back pain, repetitive strain injury, and menopausal and menstrual complaints. Some essential oils are not suitable for use during pregnancy. Those with diabetes, epilepsy and heart conditions must also avoid certain oils.

A first-timer's experience: For this treatment, you need to be pretty comfortable with your body because, yes, you do have to take off all your clothes except your underpants. After taking a brief medical history, I was left alone to undress and lie face down on the treatment couch. The room was warm, softly lit and a little bit stuffy. Upon her return, the aromatherapist made up a blend of oils consulting me on whether I had an aversion to each one before she added it. Then, oils ready, she began with gentle repetitive strokes down my back. Gradually, she changed the massage stroke and worked into any knobbly areas firmly yet never causing pain. Then, she moved on to my arms and hands, neck, head, face, legs and finally feet. She covered me completely in towels and left me alone for a few minutes. Clothes back on and feeling very oily, I returned to the busy city street. Mood lighter. Same time, same place next week, please?

An advocate's view: Nicola Walsh works in publishing and first went for an aromatherapy massage three years ago. "My job is quite stressful and at the time, I felt very run down and tired all the time. I was obsessed with detail and a worrier although I appeared fine. I varied from being an erratic sleeper to a downright insomniac. So, I decided I'd treat myself. Following a thorough first consultation, I had a series of six treatments. Now, I have a treatment about once a month. "I find aromatherapy full-body massage rebalances me and it has sorted out my sleep problems. I find the treatment itself completely relaxing and calming. I forget about everything while I am there. I'm like a zombie afterwards. I just go home and sleep really well that night. Then, for about a week afterwards, I have loads of energy."

The medical view: Aromatherapy oils are said to act both pharmacologically, by absorption into the blood stream through the skin and by olfactory stimulation. Most clinical trials of massage have focused on psychological outcomes of treatment. There is good evidence from randomised trials to indicate that massage reduces anxiety scores in the short term in settings as varied as intensive care, psychiatric institutions, hospices and occupational health. Practitioners and patients report that massage improves self-image in terminal illness.

There are very few clinical trials showing that any massage technique can have specific effects on conditions such as osteoarthritis, epilepsy, infertility or diabetes. There is a need for large-scale randomised trials to assess the use of aromatherapy in chronic health conditions. Although essential oils are pharmacologically active, the lack of a formal reporting scheme for adverse events in aromatherapy means that the safety of essential oils has not been conclusively established.

Qualifications held by practising aromatherapists vary hugely from the International Therapy Examinations Council (ITEC) certificates held by beauty therapists to the 280 hours training required for members of the Register of Qualified Aromatherapists (0801-232- 753658). The Irish and International Aromatherapy Association can be contacted at 044-45210. Treatments cost between £30 and £50