Is “aromatherapy” a misnomer?

My whole blog is dedicated to aromatherapy; in fact, at the moment aromatherapy is the centre of my whole life! I am building two businesses around the treatment; it is the subject of my PhD thesis and it is helping me through the morning sickness phase of my pregnancy, not to mention those dreaded, pregnancy associated stretch-marks. So, with this many applications (and so many more!!), I am beginning to wonder – is “aromatherapy” a misnomer??

The term was originally coined by René-Maurice Gattefossé in the early 1900’s when he wrote the book, Aromathérapie: Les Huiles Essentielles Hormones Végétales. This was later translated into English as “Aromatherapy”.

When someone hears the word aromatherapy for the first time, it would not be heedless of them to believe that the treatment was based around scent, alone. I mean, “aroma” is defined “as an odor arising from spices, plants, cooking, etc., especially an agreeable odor; fragrance” (Dictionary.com) and “therapy” as “the treatment of disease or disorders, as by some remedial, rehabilitating, or curative process” (Dictionary.com). When we think about terms which define certain therapies, there is no mistaking them: speech therapy, psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioural therapy – and the list goes on. Why then is a therapy with so many important and varied applications, limited by its name?

In the recent Australian budget, the government announced it was to carry out a review on complementary therapies in order to re-define those which would be supported by private health insurance. I whole-heartedly support this initiative as it should ultimately highlight where the research is necessary, and where research funding should be allocated (after all, CAM accounts for 12.5% of medicine sales in Australia and this is increasing). The name aromatherapy suggests action through scent and via the olfactory pathway with an impact on the limbic system and there is very little robust evidence to support this action (a very valid therapeutic aspect of aromatherapy, but not the only one). When discussing “aromatherapy” with friends, it became apparent that the word does not actually conjure up any “therapeutic” benefit at all – for them it is associated with nice candles, and relaxing massages. In their opinion it does not provide any inkling of the benefits outside of this pleasant smelling “experience”.

Any one individual essential oil is a complex mixture of monoterpenes (more than 1000 identified, to date), sesquiterpenes (more than 3000) and phenylpropanoids (a much smaller, but none-the-less very significant constituent group) which can begin to explain why one essential oil may be described as analgesic, antidepressant, antimicrobial, antirheumatic, antiseptic, antitoxic, caminative, cicatrizant, cytophylactic, deodorant, hypotensive, insecticidal, parasiticidal, sedative, stimulant, tonic, vermifuge and vulnerary. OK, so this may be overstating the illustration, but it does present support to the “holistic” aromatherapy approach, rather than “symptomatic, reductionist” approach to healing offered by orthodox medicines”.

I would like to highlight the significant effect the use of essential oils, or aromatherapy had for one man following hospital admission:

During 1997/98, an adult male was admitted to hospital with an open fracture to his left tibia. Following the removal of damaged tissue, the insertion of an intermedullary nail (used to treat fractures of long bones) and follow up surgery the man developed chronic osteomyelitis (bone infection) with MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), causing significant swelling and pain. This was treated with intravenous antibiotics and surgery for a number of years without successful outcome; amputation was discussed as a potential treatment option. The man was admitted for emergency surgery following yet another extremely painful flare-up of symptoms, at which time Osteoset Pellets™ which had been soaked in a Polytoxinol (a liquid mixture of active ingredients including lemongrass, eucalyptus, melaleuca (tea tree), clove, thyme, B.H.T and alcohol) were inserted via an incision near the tibia bone, and were continuously soaked with the liquid for 48 hours. Three months following the procedure, the wound had healed, the symptoms had resolved and the man felt better (Sherry et al., 2001) – and he still has a leg! The makers of this anti-biotic alternative have also claimed that it is beneficial for the treatment of golden staph and tuberculosis.

The word “aromatherapy” does not even begin to describe the benefits attributed to essential oils in this example.

My research will examine the effect of essential oils on the physical symptoms of acne – another example of a therapeutic outcome which is not associated with “smell”.

Having said all of this, there is a lot to be said about the “smell” of essential oils and the associated therapeutic benefits. Some areas of important research include its effects on hypertension (high blood pressure); post-operative nausea; anxiety; dementia; child birth; stress; sleep disorders – and the list goes on. Does the term aromatherapy accurately describes these benefits? I am not so sure…

So, what is the solution? Do we change the name? I don’t think that this would make the word aromatherapy obsolete; but I do think it is time to differentiate. Many “aromatherapists” use the term “clinical” to denote the difference between their practice and those whose role is to provide a lovely, relaxing experience in, say, a spa setting. I call myself a Clinical Aromatherapist. But this still does not provide an accurate description of the treatment I offer. With associations to phytotherapy and historical links to herbal medicine, perhaps it is time to come up with a more fitting professional name: Essential Phytotherapy; Essential Oil Therapy. What do you think?

Ref: Sherry, E., Boeck, H., Warnke, P H (2001) Percutaneous treatment of chronic MRSA osteomyelitis with a novel plant-derived antiseptic. BMC Surgery 1(1)

“Fun-run” indeed, what a misnomer. That’d be like saying “calm gremlin” or “pleasant hag” or “entertaining history textbook”.

Kiersten White, Supernaturally

2 thoughts on “Is “aromatherapy” a misnomer?

  1. I agree, there is much diversity in its use and it often requires an explanation for people to appreciate what it is and how it is used. Here in France, it is very much the domain of the pharamcist and most of the books written are by pharmacists, doctors can prescribe it, but it seems to me that the pharmacists are the passionate advocates of aromatherapy, for use internally and externally to improve health. It is also very common for people to use it in the home, as much in their cooking as for the aromatic properties and for making organic home-based beauty products.

    As for changing the name, I’m not so sure that wouldn’t add another layer of confusion or limit it in some way, it might not be logical to use ‘aroma’ but the name has become synonymous with the multiple uses and we are perhaps still in an age of education and learning and discovering as its properties and benefits become more well-known and respected. A fascinating therapy and one I love to talk about and share with others.

  2. I love the way the French practice aromatherapy – although it is a very reductionist approach and as we know, the oils are a very multifaceted approach to healing. But it is very useful; Pennoel and Franchomme’s Molecular Approach is the basis of one part of my research.

    I take your point about the confusion – but as we are still in the education phase of this relatively new therapy, it is probably the best time to do it. The word aromatherapy is used to sell everything from shampoo & conditioner, to air fresheners. I think a change might be the best way to differentiate ourselves as more than a beauty/cleaning product.

    Thanks for your reply!!
    Kindest regards :))

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