MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Alternative medicine has no shortage of research that suggests it to be effective. Almost invariably, however, one finds – when looking a bit more carefully at such investigations – that the positive conclusions are not warranted by the data. Here is an excellent, recent example:

This new study, authored by two Turkish nurses, was an RCT where the patients were randomly assigned to either an aromatherapy massage (n = 17), reflexology (n = 17) or the control group (n = 17). Aromatherapy massage was applied to both knees of subjects in group 1 for 30 minutes. Reflexology was administered to both feet of subjects in group 2 for 40 minutes during weekly home visits. The subjects of group 3, the control group, received no intervention.

Fifty-one subjects with rheumatoid arthritis were recruited from a university hospital rheumatology clinic in Turkey between July 2014 and January 2015 for this trial. Data were collected by personal information form, DAS28 index, Visual Analog Scale and Fatigue Severity Scale. Pain and fatigue scores were measured at baseline and within an hour after each intervention for 6 weeks.

Pain and fatigue scores significantly decreased in the aromatherapy massage and reflexology groups compared with the control group (p < .05). The reflexology intervention started to decrease pain and fatigue scores earlier than aromatherapy massage (week 1 vs week 2 for pain, week 1 vs week 4 for fatigue) (p < .05).

The authors concluded that aromatherapy massage and reflexology are simple and effective non-pharmacologic nursing interventions that can be used to help manage pain and fatigue in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

I am sure that most readers have spotted the snag: the two interventions generated better outcomes than no therapy. It is quite simply wrong to assume that this outcome is specifically related to the two treatments. Both of these treatments are fairly agreeable and generate expectations, involve touch, attention and care. In my view, it is these latter factors which together have caused the better outcomes. And this is, of course, entirely unrelated to any specific effects of the two therapies.

This might well be trivial, but if such sloppy conclusions pollute the literature to the extend that they currently do in the realm of alternative medicine, it becomes important.

3 Responses to Aromatherapy and reflexology are both effective…or aren’t they?

  • Professor Ernst,

    This post affirms yet again a rather poor understanding of clinical trial methodology. A pragmatic trial such as this one with a wait-list control makes no attempt to look for specific effects. You say “it is quite simply wrong to assume that this outcome is specifically related to the two treatments.” Where have specific effects been tested or assumed in this study? Your statement in no way, shape or form negates the author’s conclusions that “aromatherapy massage and reflexology are simple and effective non-pharmacologic nursing interventions.” Effectiveness is not a measure of specific effects.

    Furthermore, reflexologists and aromatherapists would concur that “agreeable” treatments that generate “expectations, involve touch, attention and care” are key features of what they offer. You seem to be suggesting that it’s appropriate to control for aspects of the treatment itself, which makes absolutely no sense and is not methodologically valid. What type of touch, massage, etc produces the best outcomes in RA is a valid research question to be sure but not one that was asked by this particular study.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please answer the following: *

Recent Comments

Note that comments can be edited for up to five minutes after they are first submitted.


Click here for a comprehensive list of recent comments.

Categories