Easing pain, anxiety with aromatherapy

Research & Resources Wellness

Aromatherapy has long been known as a holistic way to promote health and wellbeing, but it could also be an alternative method to treat pain and anxiety, even in the hospital setting.

That’s what clinicians at Mount Carmel Rehabilitation Hospital, an affiliate of Encompass Health, have discovered. The Westerville, Ohio rehabilitation hospital has been offering aromatherapy as an alternative to pain medications since June 2020, and so far, the essential oils have proven helpful in reducing pain, as well as anxiety.

Anxiety has increased in patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. “A lot of our patients have been stressed or anxious,” said Kelli Heinlen, an occupational therapist at the hospital. “Some of them are lonely, others are not sleeping well. We introduce lavender, and it seems to calm them.”

Removing the barriers to recovery

At rehabilitation hospitals such as Mount Carmel, patients typically received three hours of therapy a day, five days a week. Pain can be a barrier to a patient’s ability to withstand that therapy, which can set them back in their recovery.

Lack of sleep, which is often caused by anxiety, can also prevent patients from fully participating in therapy.

Dr. Sarah Grove, Mount Carmel’s medical director, said aromatherapy offers another tool for clinicians to help their patients overcome these issues and continue in their recovery without the use of pain medications that can also cause drowsiness and lead to missed therapy.

“We don’t just want to give them medications if there is a non-pharmacological option available,” she said. “In recent years, there’s been a lot of attention to essential oils and their therapeutic benefits. Studies have shown the positive effects of using them to reduce pain and anxiety, and they can also help with sleep.”

Aromatherapy in the hospital setting

Instead of the diffusers commonly used with essential oils, Camille Milligan, director of therapy operations at Mount Carmel, said they needed a more portable option for patients, so they could benefit from the aromatherapy both in their rooms and in the therapy gym.

Elequil Aromatherapy Tabs are formulated specifically for the hospital setting. “The small stickers have wicks filled with essential oil and can be placed on a patient’s clothing,”

Milligan said. “It lasts for eight hours. Three scents are available, but we use the lavender one.”

Benefits to patients

Of the patients who have opted to use the aromatherapy tabs, Milligan said the majority said they felt better and more relaxed.

Heinlen added that it’s not something the care team offers immediately when a patient is admitted, but if they’re having problems sleeping and are anxious or in pain, they’ll offer it as a non-pharmacological option.

“If I have a patient that’s just so focused on their pain or their anxiety, and they can’t focus on anything else, that is usually when I’ll offer it as an option,” she said.

Many of the patients who do choose to use aromatherapy often end up wanting to use it after they leave the hospital, as well, Milligan added.