Imagine being able to relieve a headache, ease nausea or soothe anxiety before resorting to medicine. In some cases, the solution could be something as natural and simple as essential oils, according to many providers at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.
“Any ailment you have, there may be an essential oil to support your health,” said nurse clinician Kathy Jopke.
Jopke is one of several employees at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin researching how essential oils can be used to improve the health of patients.
Current studies include exploring the effectiveness of essential oils in improving post-surgical comfort, investigating a blend of oils as a more environmentally friendly cleaning solution, and surveying providers’ knowledge and perception of essential oils.
“Essential oils have become more popular in society and among our patient population,” said clinical nurse specialist Ashley Stelter. “People are looking for other ways to take care of themselves, and a lot of hospitals are looking at how to weave essential oils into the care they provide.”
Why essential oils work
“Essential oils were the first medicine,” said nurse clinician Jodi Wenzel. “They’re supportive to your health, and take you back to our roots.”
Essential oils, which can be applied topically or diffused, are made of living things like plants, leaves, roots, bark and flowers. Jopke believes that since essential oils are from the earth they have the capability to affect our bodies on a cellular level.
“It’s really interesting,” she said. “Whether it’s babies, adults or grandparents, essential oils can work on all of us.”
According to Stelter, lavender can calm and help people sleep, while other oils, such as citrus, can energize. Others have strong cleaning properties and have been shown to inhibit bacterial growth.
“You can use essential oils in different ways, but it’s not until you experience them that you really see how they work,” Stelter said.
Personal experience turns into research
Jopke saw the benefits of essential oils herself about four years ago when a fellow nurse suggested she give her then 8-year-old daughter a blend of oils to alleviate coughing. She soon saw the combination of peppermint, eucalyptus, lemon, and laurel leaf greatly reduced the number of times her daughter needed her inhaler.
Shortly after that, Jopke witnessed a grandmother using essential oils in the intensive care unit with her granddaughter who had been severely burned. That led her and co-investigator Heather Sanders, a pediatric nurse, to initiate a comparative case study of two children with similar histories of extensive burns.
Published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing in 2017, the research project compared a patient who received the current standard of care and the patient who received that same care plus the essential oil therapy that the grandmother initiated.
Jopke and her team found that the latter patient had fewer infections and a shorter hospital stay.
Currently, Jopke is working on a study to see if a specific essential oil could be used as a cleaner.
The study tests the capabilities of each cleanser against infectious organisms in the laboratory setting. Jopke’s co-investigators are Wenzel; Mary Bolhuis, a surgical enhancement clinician; and Dr. Matthew Faron, a Medical College of Wisconsin clinical biology instructor. Dr. Rosemary White-Traut, director of nursing research, is the team mentor.
“If the study shows what I think it will, the essential oil could provide added cleaning power when used in conjunction with typical disinfectants,” Jopke said.
How essential oils can improve post-surgical comfort
Another study currently underway at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin is analyzing essential oils’ effectiveness in improving post-surgical comfort.
“We found a lot of information about how effective essential oils are for adults after surgery, but there was little information about using it in the pediatric population,” said Danielle Gustafson, a perianesthesia nurse.
Gustafson, along with fellow perianesthesia nurse Valerie Dethloff and clinical nurse specialist Anita Norton, are providing patients at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Surgicenter an essential oil to ease nausea. The oil contains peppermint, spearmint and ginger, which are said to improve nausea, as well as lavender, which is known to calm.
After surgery, kids who choose to participate in the study peel back the lid of the plastic pod and breathe in three slow, deep breaths. The nurse returns five minutes later and reassesses where the patient is on the nausea scale. Ranging from zero to 10, zero represents no nausea and 10 represents vomiting.
As of mid-January, the team had surveyed five patients between 8 to 17 years of age, and the results were promising. The first patient’s nausea scale went from eight to zero. The other patients’ nausea scales went down two or more increments.
“It’s great to be able to offer our patients something to make them more comfortable,” said Gustafson, adding that they can continue to use the oil on the car ride home and for the following 48 hours. “I want our families to feel like we went above and beyond to help them feel better.”
Gustafson added that patients in the study are still offered the same anti-vomiting and nausea medication as patients typically receive following surgery; the essential oil is an addition. The team plans to conclude the research after surveying 40 patients. If the essential oil is found to be an effective supplement, they will begin offering it at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Surgicenter.
“Medication is a great thing, but it’s nice to offer patients something a little more natural,” Gustafson said. “And it makes them feel more empowered and in control of their health.”
The future of essential oil at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin
In late 2016, a dozen Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin employees formed what they call “the aromatherapy group” to develop policies and practices for guiding safe practices. The group consists of advanced practice nurse clinicians, bedside nurses, psychologists and child life specialists.
“This group wants to make sure that patients and families have access to a range of therapy,” said Stelter, who co-leads the group with Michelle Czarnecki, a pain management advanced practice nurse.
As one of the group’s first steps, Stelter and chief nursing officer Nancy Korom plan to survey pediatric health care professionals’ perceptions and knowledge of essential oil use. They plan to survey an array of health care professionals, including physicians, nurses, dietitians, therapists and social workers from Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and the Medical College of Wisconsin.
“I want to explore what they think about essential oils and what factors influence the implementation of them,” Stelter said. “Essential oils are increasingly being used by patients and families, but many health care professionals aren’t aware of the practice and, therefore, don’t ask families about it.”
She says providers should be knowledgeable about essential oils because their use has the potential to impact care. For instance, some oils can make the user sensitive to light, as do some medications.
Stelter recommends that people consult with their health care providers before using essential oils and that patient families inform their care team if they are already using them.
People should also know that essential oils are not meant to be a substitute for medicine.
“Essential oils should be a complement. They should never be used instead of medicine,” Stelter said.
– Hilary Dickinson, writer, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin