Our Comprehensive Guide to Aromatherapy for Massage Therapists
As you start updating your massage CEUs, you really start to realize that massage is a truly amazing modality. It can help relieve your clients’ stress, assist them in recovering from injuries, and bring about muscular relaxation. Massage can also lower blood pressure, improve your clients’ circulation, assist in correcting posture…the list goes on.
As part of your time in massage school, you likely learned about a variety of different massage modalities. Depending on the client, you might use sports massage, deep tissue massage, Swedish massage, medical massage, or any number of other techniques. Some massage therapists use Rolfing to assist their clients, while others use pregnancy massage to assist a client who’s going through the process of carrying a child and giving birth. There are also a variety of integrative massage techniques that some massage therapists employ, including acupressure, moxa, reiki, and more.
If you’re like most massage therapists, you’re always looking for another tool to add to your client sessions. Every person who walks through your door is different, and the more approaches and modalities you have available to you, the better.
Aromatherapy is a technique that can be incorporated into your existence practice as a means of assisting your clients on their path to greater overall wellness. There are a lot of great things about aromatherapy. For one thing, it doesn’t require a ton of expensive tools, gizmos, or gadgets: you can get started on a small budget. It’s also easy to add to your existing arsenal of massage modalities. Plus, aromatherapy is something that’s useful for a wide range of clients. Overall, it’s a great area to explore to a bodywork and massage professional.
But at this point, you’re probably wondering: what exactly is aromatherapy? How does it work? And how can I incorporate it into my existing massage practice? Is there a lot to learn, or can I start with it right away?
We’ve put together this brief but comprehensive guide to aromatherapy to answer all of these questions and more. If you’re already familiar with aromatherapy, you can consider this part of your LMT review of techniques that you already use in your practice. And, maybe you’ll still learn something new!
Before we go any further, it’s important to keep in mind that some claims about essential oil healing properties are support by more research than others. And regardless of how much research there is out there about a particular essential oil, our intention here is not to advocate the use for any essential oils to treat any particular physical issues. Always remember your scope of practice as a massage therapist, and be sure to stay within it. While it’s interesting to learn more about the healing properties of essential oils, it may not fall within your scope of practice to use them for certain issues.
Alright, we’ve got that cleared up. Now, ready to get started? Let’s go!
What Is Aromatherapy?
First off, you might be asking: what exactly is aromatherapy?
To sum it up in brief: aromatherapy is the use of various plant oils to promote both physical and mental health and wellbeing. This can mean different things for different scenarios and environments. People have been using essential oils for centuries to bring about various physiological and psychological changes in the body, both in terms of their fragrance and physical properties. As a massage therapist, the opportunity exists to make use of both the olfactory qualities of essential oils (by exposing your clients to scents during a session) and their physical properties (by blending them with a carrier oil as part of the massage).
Aromatherapeutic oils can trigger certain brain activities when their scent is inhaled. We’re all familiar with this experience, after all. Think for a moment about how the smell of baking cookies makes you feel relaxed and at home. Similarly, odors can have a strong negative effect on the mind, such as when we smell something putrid that triggers revulsion, nausea, and so on. There’s no question: odor can have a powerful effect on us!
Meanwhile, various essential oils have been shown to have physical benefits as well when applied indirectly to the skin in combination with a carrier oil. We’ll discuss the physical properties of specific oils below.
The History of Aromatherapy
As is the case with many natural healing modalities, aromatherapy has been around for thousands of years. Of course, the term “aromatherapy” itself is relatively new, being a term that was coined for the first time by the French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse in 1937. Gattefosse found that lavender oil helped to heal a burn he had suffered, a discovery that led to the use of various essential oils for healing throughout World War II.
Aromatherapy is different from some other forms of alternative medicine and various holistic modalities in that it doesn’t necessarily refer to a single tradition or technique. When we say “Chinese herbal medicine” or “acupuncture,” for example, we’re talking about a very specific lineage of healing that goes back thousands of years in a particular culture. With aromatherapy, though, things aren’t quite so easy to trace.
We know, for example, that the ancient Egyptians are likely to have been the first civilization to manage to extract oils from plants. They famously used various essential oils derived from cinnamon, clove, and other plants in order to embalm their dead. Of course, this isn’t exactly an aromatherapeutic use in the modern sense of the term. Meanwhile, the ancient Chinese are said to have used various aromas to enhance an individual’s mood. Similarly, Hippocrates — the ancient Greek father of modern medicine — is also claimed to have used something like aromatherapy in treating his patients.
How Does Aromatherapy Work?
When we talk about how aromatherapy works, there are two major pathways we need to consider. One is olfactory — that is, the effect that aromatherapeutic essential oils have on us via our sense of smell — and the other involves physical absorption through the skin.
First, let’s consider the olfactory route. This is what most people think of when they hear the word “aromatherapy.” This makes sense, of course, given the use of the root word “aroma.” That said, how exactly does this pathway work? What’s going on inside the body?
Our sense of smell is incredibly primitive, and cognitive scientists have determined that our olfactory sense is linked to some of the oldest, most primitive parts of our brain. This is why certain smells can trigger such strong responses in us, even if we’re not cognitively aware of them. We often also associate particular scents with specific memories, people, and places.
When we inhale air, we’re breathing in a mixture of many different molecules in addition to oxygen. The act of perceiving a specific scent, then, involves certain aromatic molecules entering our noses and stimulating special sensory nerves there, which scientists refer to as olfactory cells. These olfactory cells are able to recognize specific scents, as particular aromatic molecules will fit into receptors on these cells the same way that a key fits into a lock. Once we receive this stimulus, a nerve impulse is sent to the brain and ultimately into our limbic system. This is the primal part of the brain which is connected to our emotions, instincts, and drive for survival. Although these responses are still somewhat poorly understood, scientists believe that it’s the action of these nerve signals that can cause such powerful mood changes in us when we respond to particular smells.
What about absorption, then? Can essential oils have an impact on the body via physical contact? Indeed, they can. As mentioned above, lavender can aid in the healing of burns and wounds. It’s quite common for essential oils to have physical healing properties. For example:
- Clove essential oil can have an antiseptic effect, and is commonly used to combat oral infections.
- Eucalyptus oil has traditionally been used by Aborigines for a variety of problems, and experimenters in India are exploring the viability of using eucalyptus to combat staph infections.
- Citrus oils, including lemon oil, can repel bugs and stimulate lymphatic drainage.
- Oregano has been showing to have antifungal, antibacterial, and immunomodulating effects. It’s been used for everything from gastrointestinal problems to rheumatoid arthritis, and from allergies and sinus issues to athlete’s foot and warts.
How exactly does this work, though? Essentially, the molecules in various oils are so small that they’re able to penetrate the outer layer of the skin. From the epidermis, these molecules make their way down into the dermis and eventually to the body’s blood vessels. They’re then able to circulate throughout the body, thus having the above-mentioned effects in some cases.
Is There Evidence for Aromatherapy?
Some people are skeptical of whether or not aromatherapy actually “works.” Is it all in your head, or does it actually accomplish measurable goals when used with clients?
There are actually a number of studies which point to the efficacy of aromatherapy. One such study found that rose essential oil could relieve menstrual cramps, while another found aromatherapy to be useful for aiding in the relief of menopausal symptoms.
How Can I Get Started with Aromatherapy?
At this point, you have some understanding of what aromatherapy is, where it comes from, and how it can have a physical effect on the body (either via the nose or through the skin). But that being said, how exactly do you get started with aromatherapy as a massage therapist?
On the one hand, incorporating aromatherapy into a massage practice should be pretty easy. You just expose a client to certain scents by blending an essential oil into a carrier oil as part of your massage session. Not too complicated, right?
At the same time, though, the whole thing can feel a little overwhelming. There are so many essential oils out there. It can be tough trying to figure out which ones should be incorporated into your practice and which ones to leave out. Plus, trying to find an LMT review of particular essential oils can be a challenge, as aromatherapy isn’t exclusively used by massage therapists.
According to Massage Magazine, one of the best first steps you can take is delving deep into a couple of books on aromatherapy. Two excellent choices are Jean Valnet’s “The Practice of Aromatherapy,” along with “The Aromatherapy Workbook” by Shirley Price.
If you’re going to set aside time to read a couple of books, it can be helpful to take notes as you go. You can even take a more formal approach and create a kind of self-study course for yourself. It can be difficult to find the time to learn a new skill, especially when you’re busy running your massage practice and managing a long list of tasks from day to day. By setting up a reading schedule for yourself and creating some exercises to do — for example, writing summaries of chapters after you finish reading them in order to cement the information more firmly in your memory — you can ensure that you actually reach your goal of assimilating as much information about aromatherapy as possible.
Of course, there’s no reason to stop there. Reading a book can be a great way to pick up some basic information, and it will also give you a sense of whether or not aromatherapy is really something you’re interested in. If you discover that it’s particularly captivating and seems especially relevant for your practice, you can then dive in deeper by signing up for an online course. You might also consider dedicating some of your annual massage CEU requirements to attending an aromatherapy seminar. This can be a great way to dive in quickly and come away with definite strategies in mind that you can put into practice immediately.
Of course, you can also jump right in with something very simple and straightforward. Lavender oil, for example, is excellent for relaxation and can be blended with a carrier oil as part of your massage sessions.
Aromatherapy as Part of Your Massage Practice
As you can see, aromatherapy can be a valuable part of your massage therapy practice. Don’t forget, though: continuing your education is just as important as having the right equipment! When it comes to massage CEUs, Panda™ is the #1 online provider of affordable, relevant, and engaging continuing education. We offer a wide variety of massage CEU course options, including training in hot stone therapy, cupping, hydrotherapy, sports massage, chair massage, and more. All of Panda’s courses are taught by qualified, nationally acclaimed and certified massage therapists. Click here to learn more about our pricing, or click here to view a complete list of all of our course offerings.