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IstockphotoIts a cold, gloomy, mid-February day, and Id give just about anything for a good aromatherapy massage—if only I wasnt behind on two deadlines, waiting on an hour-long conference call, and preparing for an integrative medicine conference that promises to be fascinating—though it will absolutely annihilate the rest of my work week. Oh, and I should be baking and FedEx'ing birthday cookies for my son, Jack. If anyone needs a massage, it's me.

An aromatherapy massage means spending from 30 to 90 minutes (depending on your capacity for ecstasy and your budget) cocooned in an aura of aroma designed to help you achieve the mood you seek. Coupled with these lovely scents is a head-to-toe massage that—when performed by a skilled, empathetic therapist—will suck all the tension out of your body, catapult you out of the deepest doldrums, and ignite your energy like nothing else can. Really, its two therapies in one.

Healing you can smell
Aromatherapy is recognized by enlightened members of the medical community for its ability to alter the perception of pain, alleviate nausea, ease insomnia, and help kill germs, says Mehmet Oz, MD, director of the Cardiovascular Institute at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, in his foreword to Clinical Aromatherapy: Essential Oils in Clinical Practice, by Jane Buckle, RN, PhD. Buckle is a clinical aromatherapist whose book cites reams of aromatherapy research and aims to educate nurses, doctors, and other practitioners about how to add aromatherapy to their toolbox of healing techniques.

Next Page:Â How to choose a therapist [ pagebreak ]Choose your therapist wisely
See my previous post on the secrets of a great massage, and use the American Massage Therapy Association to find a licensed practitioner in your area. Another great resource is your local day spa. Good ones are likely to have aromatherapy massages on the menu; call to make sure that the therapist uses pure essential oils, ask where she (or he) was trained, and inquire about how much experience she has.

In my experience, a good therapist will start off by asking you questions: What brings you here? Are you in pain? Where do you hold your tension? Do you sleep well? Shell likely take a quick medical history to find out if you have any acute or chronic medical problems that might affect the way she conducts the massage. Shell also ask if you have allergies, to make sure that any lotions or essential oils she uses wont trouble you.

Therapists are creative about how they use essential oils during your massage. Some, after taking your history, may decide on a blend of oils to address your particular concerns. Others will ask you to choose oils that appeal to your senses. Still others have standard blends they use for specific conditions.

Luscious spa treatment...or therapeutic healing tool?
Heres where it gets murky. We know that massage eases muscle pain, reduces stress, relieves headaches, and stimulates immunity via scores of studies that confirm the benefits of massage. Likewise, many studies suggest that certain essential oils have specific medicinal effects.

But its nearly impossible to study the effects of an aromatherapy massage because massage itself has so many physical benefits. That makes it difficult to tease out what, if anything, the aromatherapy adds, says Barrie R. Cassileth, PhD, chief of Integrative Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

I asked Dr. Cassileth specifically about one Japanese study, published last year, that suggested that an aromatherapy massage using lavender or sandalwood oil could relieve anxiety and enhance immunity for women whod recently finished chemotherapy or radiation treatments for breast cancer.

“First of all, women undergoing cancer treatment may become nauseated by any kind of aromatherapy because they are very sensitive to odors,” she said. “Massage therapy is very helpful for cancer patients because it reduces pain, fatigue, anxiety, and depression. Whether or not to add aroma is up to the patient and how shes feeling.”

Still, many hospitals across the country, including Memorial Sloan-Kettering, offer aromatherapy massage to patients and sometimes even to members of the community.

I dont know about you, but I dont want to get so stressed out that I have to check into a hospital to get my aromatherapy massage. See you at the day spa!