If a patient comes into an emergency room with a sprained ankle, nurses can quickly apply ice to begin relieving pain before a doctor arrives.
There’s not much they can do in a hurry, however, to combat nausea and vomiting, a common complaint in the ER.
This spring, a team of emergency room nurses at Mercy Hospital in Council Bluffs tried a remedy from alternative or complementary medicine: inhaled essential oils.
While it’s difficult to track, the use of the plant-derived, scented oils has begun cropping up in some health systems in Nebraska and across the country.
Methodist Health System, for instance, has been using the oils in oncology and recovery rooms for about a year. Nurses also have seen success with them as an early intervention for laboring moms and have been giving them to those who have had cesarean sections.
The Mercy nurses thought it might work in the emergency room, too. So they did what one does in the medical world and conducted a study earlier this year.
First, they reviewed patient charts and found that it took almost 45 minutes for patients suffering mainly from abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting to receive treatment.
To give anti-nausea medication, a doctor or advanced practice nurse has to see the patient, order the drug and administer it. For patients, that waiting can be time spent in misery.
Then the nurses started giving such patients — 52 during the trial — a blend of peppermint, lavender, ginger and spearmint oils, all of which are associated with reducing nausea. And it was faster: about 17 minutes from the time patients arrived in the ER to when they got the remedy.
“They can just sniff it, and it can go to work immediately,” said Nikki Rauth, one of the registered nurses who participated in the trial.
Brittany Kauffman, staff development nurse for Methodist Health System, said nurses in hospital recovery rooms have long given patients fresh out of surgery alcohol wipes to sniff to relieve nausea until they could reach a doctor to order medication.
Barb Johnson, an oncology clinical nurse educator with the health system, had been searching for a way to bring a more classic type of aromatherapy into the hospital that wouldn’t create infection control concerns.
Johnson learned about a small plastic pack with a foil cover and a perforated barrier to keep oils from contacting skin.
“It’s one of the first things nurses grab,” Kauffman said. “We keep these little packets at bedside.”
Research in scientific journals on the oils’ effectiveness in treating nausea generally runs about 50-50, she said.
The Mercy ER nurses got similar results. They found that half the patients who got the oils reported an improvement in their symptoms. They also noticed that some didn’t need medication after getting the oils.
They also surveyed their fellow emergency room nurses and found that 63 percent saw value in having the blend available for patients.
“As nurses, we always want to do as much as we can for the patients,” said Katie Morse, another of the registered nurses involved in the project.
The team, which also included nurse Jennifer Achenbach, recently won the Iowa Organization of Nurse Leaders Innovation in Patient Care Award. Their project was selected from among 20 nominations.
Kauffman said use of the oils is part of a multi-modal approach to pain management, which includes nausea control.
She also likes the fact that they can send the oil packs home with patients after outpatient surgeries. They last about 72 hours.
Rauth and Morse said they are working on stocking the product for regular use in Mercy’s ER. They know essential oils also have been put to other uses, including treating anxiety.
“In the future, we may be seeing more and more of this,” Morse said.