Aromatherapy Found to Mitigate Cancer Pain, Opioid Use at the End of Life

Aromatherapy at the end of life improved cancer-related pain and opioid use in patients with cancer, according to a recent study.

Results of a recent pilot study suggest that the use of aromatherapy as an adjuvant nonpharmacologic nursing intervention may provide benefits related to pain at the end of life in patients with cancer. These study results were reported in the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing.

The aim of this pilot study was to evaluate the use of aromatherapy as an addition to conventional pharmacologic pain management for outcomes such as pain intensity and perception in a population of patients with cancer treated at the end of life or in hospice care. It was conducted from August 2016 to September 2021 at the John D. Dingell Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Detroit, Michigan.

Certified clinical aromatherapists applied aromatherapy after patients gave an initial rating of their pain level on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being the highest level of pain. Aromatherapy involved clove bud, lavender, frankincense, or sandalwood essential oils and was applied either at the site of localized pain or on the chest if pain was generalized.

Patients were asked to rate their pain 15 minutes after administration of aromatherapy. They also were asked questions regarding how aromatherapy made them feel, how soothing they found it to be, and whether they would like to receive more of this treatment. Patient medical records were also reviewed for use of oral morphine equivalents during the 24 hours prior to and after administration.

Results from this pilot study suggest that aromatherapy has potential benefits in helping to decrease the intensity of cancer-related pain among patients with cancer.

There were 40 participants in this study. Patients had a mean age of 69 years (range, 54 to 85), and 21 different cancer diagnoses were represented in this population.

Overall, patients reported lower pain ratings after receiving aromatherapy, with a mean score of 5.15 (SD, 3.13) prior to the intervention and a mean score of 3.67 (SD, 2.58) after the intervention (P <.001). Patients had a mean opioid use of 103 mg oral morphine equivalents in the 24 hours before aromatherapy, whereas mean opioid use in the 24 hours after aromatherapy was 86 mg oral morphine equivalents.

After receiving aromatherapy, 25 respondents reported feeling relaxed, good, better, or enjoyed aromatherapy. Another 7 respondents reported feeling indifferent/same, 1 indicated feeling uncomfortable because of the smell, and 7 did not respond to the question of how aromatherapy made them feel.

“Results from this pilot study suggest that aromatherapy has potential benefits in helping to decrease the intensity of cancer-related pain among patients with cancer,” the researchers wrote in their report.

This article originally appeared on Oncology Nurse Advisor


Cullen G, Neely L, McDonald MR, Cousino KM, Drobek C, Przywara MA. The effect of aromatherapy in the management of cancer-related pain at the end of life: a pilot study. Clin J Oncol Nurs. 2023;27(4):404-410. doi:10.1188/23.CJON.404-410