Reports on the effects of aromatherapy massage on pain, anxiety and depression in cancer patients are inconsistent, with some finding significant effects, and others not. One that did find an effect (Imanishi et al 2007) was authored by a group of researchers from four Japanese Universities. In 12 patients with breast cancer, anxiety was significantly reduced over a 4 week period. The patients received two 30 minute massage sessions each week, using diluted sweet orange, lavender and sandalwood oils. STAI (State-Trait Anxiety Inventory) scores were significantly lower after a massage session than before it, and the reduction was progressive. Even one month after the last session, anxiety levels remained low.
One possible reason for the positive outcome is that a blend of oils was used – many studies use a single oil, most commonly lavender. Another interesting finding was that the aromatherapy massage increased lymphocytes, demonstrating an improvement in immune function. But was the positive effect on the immune system due to the fact that the patients were feeling less anxious, or was it a direct immunological action?
In an earlier study (Kuriyama et al 2005), some of the same researchers measured STAI before and after a single 30 minute massage session, in 11 volunteers. Although there was a significant anxiety reduction after aromatherapy massage, there was a similar reduction after plain oil massage. But, only the aromatherapy massage increased white blood cell counts, with increases in CD8+ and CD16+ lymphocytes. In the 2007 report, CD8+ lymphocytes were also increased, but CD16+ lymphocytes were reduced. However, the 2005 report used a different oil blend – lavender, cypress, marjoram and tea tree.
What this suggests is that anxiety can be reduced by aromatherapy massage, but whether an effect takes place, and if so what effect, may depend on the specific essential oils used. Evidence of anxiety reduction from aromatherapy massage is not exactly riveting news. What is more interesting, is that it can significantly affect white blood cell count, and this is not because of the anxiety reduction. If it was, white blood cells would also have increased in the plain oil massage group in the 2005 study, and they did not. In this instance, it’s the oils, not the massage. I’m just saying…
Yes, they were very small studies, but the results imply that the benefits of aromatherapy massage go some way beyond relaxation. You will find both articles here.