How 3,500-year-old therapy of inhaling fragrances helps ease pain and anxiety

A growing number of hospitals and clinics offer aromatherapy along with traditional medicine. While formal research into the benefits of aromatherapy poses many challenges, some evidence does suggest that the alternative treatment may ease nausea, anxiety, various types of pain, and other conditions. Aromatherapy is believed to date back more than 3,500 years to ancient Egypt. The practices use fragrant essential oils, which are pure plant extracts, to remedy numerous ailments. Different oils are recommended for different symptoms.

“If they’re very anxious and just can’t relax, we would give them lavender. If it’s nausea, it would be ginger or spearmint,” says Nancy Rodgers, a certified aromatherapist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. In modern Western health care facilities, aromatherapy is often used in addition to conventional medications, such as anti-nausea drugs and anxiety or pain medications. That’s why it’s called a “complementary” therapy.

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You can inhale the fragrance of the essential oil or put a diluted solution on your skin using a compress, spray, bath, or massage. At Mayo, patients get a few drops of the prescribed essential oil on a cotton ball sealed in a zip-top bag. “They just waft it under their nose for about three to five minutes, then put it away and try it again in about a half-hour,” says Rodgers. “Otherwise they become desensitized to the scent and think it’s not working.”