Essentials oils, massage and spinal cord injuries
One of the areas I have most enjoyed working with as complementary therapist is on paraplegics. I first worked in this area in 1997 whilst in Australia and during the time I was studying what is now called Neuroskeletal Re-alignment Therapy (NSRT) in the UK (see www.neuroskeletal.org.uk). This is a non-manipulative therapy that works through the central nervous system and energy systems (chakras and meridians) and has proved very successful for both neurological disorders as well as musculo-skeletal conditions. I now teach this technique at diploma level through Complementary Health Professionals and you can read the course outline by clicking here and following the links.
My first introduction to this type of injury was in Australia to a young man who had a complete lesion at the level of T11/T12 and his MRI scan, four years after being worked with NSRT showed a normal spinal cord at the injury site. Previously, the fractured vertebrae had impinged on his spinal cord, distorting it. After being worked on with NSRT, this client had started to feel aching in the buttocks and was able to swim with the use of flippers, as he could now move his feet - this is absolutley true and yes, amazing. As well as NSRT, he also had regular massage and the two treatments were alternated every other week.
The Case Study
On my return to the UK, I was eager to work on some paraplegics the same way and was lucky enough to have a couple of willing volunteers. One of these in particular agreed to come and see me weekly for alternate treatments of NSRT and as an Aromatherapist, I decided that I would of course include essential oils in the massage treatments. The client presented with a complete lesion at T4/5. A complete lesion is one where motor and sensory function is absent below the level of injury. It can be due to a severance of the spinal cord, by nerve fibre breakage due to stretching of the cord or due to ischemia of the cord resulting from interruptions of the total blood supply.
After a year of work, the client could start to feel me stroking his back below the fracture site and the treatment affected his spasms and he could feel a sensation coming as he described “from below water” when his toes were squeezed. He also reported a cold feeling around his groin. All of these sensations, although seemingly nothing to you and I, were wonderful to someone who had lost all previous sensations in this area. He also stopped referring to his body as someone else and “re-owned” it, saying my legs instead of the legs.
The massage treatments
Essential oils, remedial massage and NSRT work very well together to address the various differing needs of the client in all circumstances. For the paraplegics I worked on, massage was fantastic, because they use their upper bodies to compensate for what they have lost and it is so amazing for them to feel touch in the form of massage to those areas they do have feelings in. Obviously, their arms are like their legs and do a lot of work pushing their wheelchairs and transferring from chair to bed etc., so there can be a lot of tension in the arms, shoulders and neck areas, which most able-bodied people complain about holding stress in anyway. Also massaging the parts without any feeling help the circulation and lymph flow and help them in other ways, depending on the oils you are using. For example, they may suffer other pathologies you can assist with and essential oils always add an extra dimension to a massage treatment.
After the initial injury and whilst in a specialised injury unit, both NSRT and light massage touch with aromatic oils would no doubt benefit any of the paraplegics, when you consider they have lost feeling from the lesion site down, as it would allow them to feel something, and have a caring person to talk to them or listen to their worries. Tetraplegics cannot move anything. They can only feel their heads, blink their eyes, open the mouth. Think about not being able to reach out for a drink when you are thirsty in hospital, or press a buzzer for assistance. But a therapist could stroke their foreheads, massage round the eyes, do gentle scalp frictions. Think what relief it would be to feel something. This is an area I would personally like to develop and work in more in the future.
Essential oil suggestions
Well, not to digress too much from the topic in hand, these are the essential oils I found were particularly useful for working on paraplegics to date:
Jasminum grandiflorum L. – this is a very masculine oil despite its heavy floral fragrance and should be used in moderation as it is highly concentrated. It does have an anti-spasmodic action and the paraplegics found it to be highly relaxing and helped with their spasticity. 75% of patients with thoracicspinal lesions have spasticity. Jasmine is also said to boost the confidence and help with low self-esteem & depression. You can only begin to imagine the emotions that someone must go through when faced with the news that they are a paraplegic. I asked my clients how it felt and they said it was like levitating mid-air. It is difficult for you or me to imagine what that must be like as we take our bodies for granted.
Piper nigrum L. – as with most of the spice oils, this helps increase the circulation and helps muscular aches and pains in general. It will also help improve muscle tone and is good for the digestive system. I found it blended well with the Jasmine and this ended up being the favourite blend. In 35mls of base oils, I only needed to use 3 drops of Jasmine with 5 of Black Pepper. This blend in particular worked to reduce the spasms and he felt very relaxed and slept well after the treatment. Due to their needs, I did have to use more remedial style massage and trigger point therapy rather that the usual relaxing aromatherapy style massage, although I did incorporate a lot of lymphatic drainage as this is really important for anyone who spends their life in a wheelchair without mobility.
Lavandula x intermedia Emeric ex Loisel – As with all Lavenders this is good for stress and tension, but this hybrid lavender has a higher camphor content, making it much more rubefacient and therefore great for aching muscles and for the general and localised circulation. It also helps anxiety and depression so another good oil for treating holistically.
Citrus paradisi Macfad. – this is such a versatile citrus oil and the usual precautions should be taken due to its phototoxicity, although Robert Tisserand/Tony Balacs in the Essential Oil Safety Manual states that you would need to use it in dilutions over 4% for this to be an issue. In the case of paraplegics, this oil helps emotionally again as it helps with grief for the loss of function. It is generally uplifting and energising, plus on a physical level it helps relieve muscle fatigue and helps to cleanse & detoxify the body, improving liver function.
Of course there were other oils that I did try, especially because of the tightness in the shoulders and so I did tend to concentrate on oils that are indicated as being good for muscular aches and pains with analgesic properties, such as Eucalyptus and Peppermint etc. However, we regularly returned to the blend of Jasmine and Black Pepper, perhaps occasionally adding a drop or two of Lemon to lift it, depending on mood.
You are probably wondering which therapy the clients preferred and the simple answer to that was both. The Neuroskeletal Re-alignment Therapy was the foundation therapy, it aims to put the body into balance and it was that therapy that we used initially to get the positive effects reported above. However, there is never anything better for dealing with lactic acid in muscle tissue than a really good massage and the power of caring human touch is invaluable for anyone, whether you have been through a serious trauma or not. I was amazed that although regular annual appointments were attended at Stoke Mandeville, the specialist hospital for spinal cord injuries, paraplegics are left pretty much to get on with things themselves. It is quite humbling to work with patients who have been through such trauma, lost the feeling in the majority of their bodies and yet still manage to smile and laugh and to enjoy life, albeit difficult. Complementary Therapies can offer these clients support to enable life to be as good as it can get. We were not expecting a miracle, to be able to ever walk again, but the results we did get felt like a minor miracle to the clients and it is certainly a very rewarding area to work in from a therapist’s point of view.
It is a good idea to study this area thoroughly as there are precautions you need to take into consideration and we do cover this in the NSRT course at Complementary Health Professionals
Aromatherapy Council’s Core Curriculum & National Occupational Standards published 1998, revised 2002, 2006 and 2016 (available at www.aromatherapycouncil.org.uk)
Lawless J. “The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, Element Books 1994
Tisserand/Balacs “Essential Oil Safety – A Guide for Health Care Professionals, Churchill Livingstone 1995.