by Linda-Anne O’Flaherty, Therapeutic Aromatherapist
Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital

Aromatherapy is a holistic healing therapy that has its roots in the most ancient healing practices of humankind. It takes into account the whole person including the physical body, the mind and the spirit. Especially selected aromatic plants have been used for centuries for medical, culinary, cosmetic and perfume applications. Most modern scientific work is done to find the ‘active’ ingredient or constituent with trace constituents being removed. However, it is the synergistic effect of all of the components that provides the full holistic healing potential of essential oils.

When blending essential oils for a treatment, the oils work synergistically with one another resulting in the whole being greater that the sum of its parts. Usually three oils are mixed into a blend for a treatment, each one enhancing the properties of the others. Essential oils are too concentrated to be used directly on the skin and are therefore diluted in a carrier oil. These carrier oils are also used as lubrication for the purposes of massage and are easily absorbed by the body. The carrier oils used in Aromatherapy are pure, cold pressed vegetable oils, the most common ones being Sweet Almond Oil and Grapeseed Oil.

Essential oils interact with the human body in three ways:

Pharmacological – by means of chemical changes that take place when an essential oils enters the bloodstream and interacts with hormones, enzymes etc.
Physiological – different oils correspond with specific body systems. (Eg. Tea Tree Oil has a direct effect on the Immune System and Eucalyptus works on the Respiratory System.)
Psychological – aromatic molecules enter the limbic system via the olfactory nerve having a direct effect on emotions, memory and instinct.

How the Aromatherapy Treatment works.

Regulating the nervous system
Stress, trauma and anxiety can all have a negative impact on the central nervous system. Our bodies are designed to maintain a balance between being alert and allowing for relaxation. During massage the patient’s response differs in reference to which part of the nervous system is out of balance. It fosters alertness and energy where there is sluggishness, thus helping to lift patients that are depressed and feeling lackluster and calms down angry, anxious or irritable emotions or systems. For optimal healing to occur, the body needs to be in a state of homeostasis. Perpetuating the cycle of imbalance robs the body of repair and healing that takes place during sleep. Gentle, therapeutic massage assists the body to reach this place of harmony where true healing takes place

Giving the child back control
When a child is admitted into hospital, they are subjected to a number of investigations and procedures that may be uncomfortable for them and that they do not want to have. Unfortunately however, they do not have any choice in this matter. The trauma that is experienced by the hospitalised child does not just revolve around the initial accident or illness that brought them to the hospital. The trauma is ongoing by the day to day activities that they have to endure. For example, they often have physiotherapy and occupational therapy, undergo blood tests or unpleasant procedures and investigations or endure regular trips to theatre and dressing rooms. While these are all very necessary treatments in the process of healing, they can also be very painful and traumatic. It is very difficult for the adults, both the parents and the medical staff, to explain why they are hurting the child and this whole situation leaves the small patient feeling vulnerable and disempowered

With so much choice and free will being taken away from the children, it is imperative to give them back some control over what is happening to them. Aromatherapy massage is a perfect way to give the child back some control over his or her environment. While massage is a pleasant and relaxing treatment and one which the majority of patients are happy to receive, they are still asked permission before a treatment begins and have the power to stop it at any time, should they so wish. They also often direct their massage sessions and will tell the therapist which areas they would like to have massaged. If there is an area on their body that they do not want to be touched, this will be respected. This is in stark contrast to the other more invasive treatments that the children endure during their stay in the hospital. The child also has the choice whether to engage with the therapist or not. Many children doze off or fall asleep during their treatments, while others remain awake but relaxed. There are no expectations on the child during their massage. The child is thus becoming integral in the process of their own healing.

Creating a healing space
A child that is in a relaxed and calm state of mind is in a better position to heal physically than one that is anxious and stressed. The hospital setting is generally not the most welcoming of environments, despite trying to make it child friendly with murals and colorful furnishings. The medical equipment and noises can be very frightening and just being away from home and their familiar surroundings can be traumatic for most children. Aromatherapy massage creates a ‘bubble of healing space’ in this unwelcoming environment.

Being in a tranquil space also allows medications to work more effectively. It has been noticed that where a child is upset and anxious, the medications can sometimes take longer to have an effect, whereas the medications will often have a more immediate effect on a child that is in a calm and peaceful state. This wonderfully demonstrates the complementary nature the Aromatherapy treatments have with Allopathic medicine.

Forming relationships and building trust
The Aromatherapist is in a unique position where she is able to form a relationship built on trust with the child. The children don’t always understand that although the doctor, nurse, physiotherapist etc is hurting them, it is ultimately for their benefit and their healing. While the person performing the painful procedure tries to be as gentle as possible, there is often a lot of pain involved.

When a child is disfigured or becomes disabled due to an accident or an illness there is a lot of adjustment and acceptance that has to take place both from the patient and their family. Being touched in a gentle and accepting manner helps the child to feel acknowledged and loved and this goes a long way in helping them to accept their new self-image. Some parents find it difficult to accept the new appearance of their children and teaching them to gently massage their children gives them a tool to help them to rekindle the bond with their child.

Patients that are being treated palliatively are also known to benefit enormously from an Aromatherapy massage. The massage helps to relieve their anxiety and restlessness and to smooth their transition. It is a privilege to provide respite and relief and to ease the passage at the end of life.  Simple massage techniques can be taught to family to give them the privilege of massaging the child when the aromatherapist is not present.

Another noticeable effect that the Aromatherapy massage has on the children, particularly in the Burns Unit is that it helps to relieve their itching. As healing progresses, the children itch to the point of needing to be put on anti-inflammatory drugs to relive this discomfort. Apart from the distress the children feel when itching to such a significant degree is the fact that they can sometimes cause more harm to their wounds by scratching them open and in some cases damaging sensitive skin grafts. A number of children ask to be massaged reporting that being massaged with the Aromatherapy oils helps to relive their itching. Their skin is also moisturized during this process and leaves what is often dry and flaking skin, looking and feeling soft and supple.


 (Photo:  One of the aromatherapy team members treating a staff member as part of a Staff Wellness Day)

Lavender ( Lavandula angustifolia)

Lavender is undoubtedly the most versatile of all the essential oils. Its major effects being it’s calming, soothing and balancing properties. Lavender has the capacity to relieve pain and its action of the Central Nervous System will assist in stabilizing the children after the trauma they have suffered. It will help to calm the child during dressing changes and other necessary procedures and help them to sleep due to its sedative properties. Lavender is well known for its use in the treatment of burns since it promotes the growth of new cells, is an antiseptic and reduces inflammation and scarring.

Lavender is also recommended for the treatment of colds, flu and fever and its antiseptic properties will help to relieve chest problems. It also supports the immune system helping the children to fight off infections. Gastric secretions are stimulated by Lavender aiding the digestive system.

Psychologically, Lavender is well known for its positive effects on unbalanced emotional states, including depression, anxiety, hysteria and other stress related conditions. Its physical properties of calming, balancing and soothing are mirrored on the emotional plane.

German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

Chamomile is well known for its calming properties. It is a strong pain reliever and anti-inflammatory agent that works particularly well on inflamed, sensitive skin conditions. Chamomile is one of the primary oils recommended for children and is a helpful remedy for a range of childhood ailments including nappy rash, ear and toothaches, swollen gums, sore throat, fevers and general irritability. The immune system is boosted with the use of Chamomile allowing the body to repair itself and fight off infections. Its antispasmodic properties help to soothe digestive problems.

Chamomile’s calming properties work extremely well on the psyche bringing in a sense of well being which aids in the treatment of depression and other anxiety related ailments. Insomnia is also well treated with Chamomile helping to still the over stimulated mind and over active emotions.

Neroli (Citrus aurantium)

Neroli has some very important physical properties, such as its ability to stimulate the growth of healthy new skin cells. It also helps to relieve smooth muscle spasms that cause diarrhoea especially when it is as a result of nervous tension.

However, it is for its effects on the emotions that we particularly use Neroli at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital. Neroli is known as the ‘Rescue Remedy’ of the essential oils and is extremely valuable in the treatment of shock, trauma, anxiety, depression and other stress related conditions. This oil is useful immediately after an accident but is also useful to address the ongoing anxiety and trauma the child faces in the ward with regular trips to the procedure room, dressing room, theatre and other painful therapies all necessary in their healing process.

The major effects that this blend has are its calming, soothing and balancing properties. It helps to calm and reassure the child helping them to sleep due to its sedative properties. Psychologically, these oils will have a positive effect on unbalanced emotional states, including depression, anxiety, hysteria, insomnia and other stress related conditions. This combination of oils is a strong pain reliever and anti-inflammatory agent that works particularly well on inflamed, sensitive skin conditions.

The majority of children that have received an Aromatherapy Treatment fall asleep during or shortly after the massage. Both nursing staff and parents have reported that they sleep for a longer period of time after their treatment and that the quality of the sleep is more restful and restorative, allowing their bodies to heal more efficiently.

This article was first published in the International Journal of Clinical Aromatherapy.