Aromatherapy, or the practice of using essential plant oils to improve physical and psychological well-being, is not new. Devotees claim that people have been using plants to heal for thousands of years, before traditional medicine was available. But while essential oils may smell good and feel even better when used on the body during a massage, for example, does aromatherapy as a treatment actually work?

The answer depends on what you expect aromatherapy to do for you. If you're looking for a relaxing experience that will help bring your mind and body into spiritual balance while shedding stress, then aromatherapy most definitely can work. Aromatherapy practitioners use common essential oils--such as peppermint, eucalyptus, yling ylang, geranium, lavender, lemon, clary sage, tea tree, Roman chamomile, and rosemary--in a variety of ways. They may light candles to infuse a room with scent, apply oils directly to the body during a massage, add oils to a bath, or inhale a particular scent directly. The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy asserts that these practices can calm people, relax emotions, and enhance focus, attention and memory.

What won't aromatherapy do for you? It probably won't cure a disease or improve your physical health, according to a study performed at Ohio State University. In this experiment, 56 healthy subjects were exposed to the scents of both lemon and lavender during three half-day sessions during which they had pieces of tape repeatedly applied to and removed from the same spots on their skin, had their feet immersed in freezing water, and were asked to fill out psychological tests evaluating their moods and stress levels. They were also monitored for changes in blood pressure and heart rate and gave regular blood samples. The results? While lemon oil perked up the subjects' mood, lavender oil did nothing. And neither scent had any effect on subjects' stress levels, wound-healing ability or pain perception.

The bottom line is that aromatherapy can be a nice addition to your wellness repertoire. Just keep your expectations in check and enjoy the scents for the pleasant sensations and enhancements they offer.