PATIENTS recovering from strokes and brain injuries are to receive aromatherapy on the National Health Service.
NHS Lothian has agreed to fund the aromatherapy after patients said their health improved after receiving treatment.
Edinburgh-based charity Ecas set up the service for a small number of women five years ago.
Health chiefs have now decided to take over the treatment, which they will provide for more than 700 people every year at the Astley Ainslie Hospital in Edinburgh, at a cost of 8000.
The move follows criticism of the treatment earlier this month, when psychologists at Middlesex University published a paper arguing aromatherapy had no effect and may even be harmful.
And opposition politicians today questioned whether the already stretched NHS should be funding alternative treatments.
Hospital manager Robert Aitken said aromatherapy was no longer considered an alternative therapy but was used to complement mainstream treatments.
He said: "We have a policy now that recognises that these therapies have a role to play. I suspect some people do not believe they are scientifically proven, but the survey speaks for itself."
After a stroke or brain injury, many patients need help to regain their strength and walk again.
A survey conducted by Ecas found that half the patients questioned after an aromatherapy treatment reported improvements in joint mobility.
The charity also found that three quarters of patients reported a decrease in physical tension and more than half felt an increased sense of well-being.
Patients admitted to these wards often need to stay for several months and managers are also using aromatherapy to provide them with a focus to their day. But Conservative health spokeswoman Nanette Milne said the NHS should approach funding complementary and alternative therapies with caution. Dr Milne said: "I worry that it would open the floodgates because there are all sorts of therapies now, many of which do not have any proven medical value. I have had aromatherapy myself and enjoyed it but I am not sure if it is a therapy the NHS should be paying for."
Using essential oils to promote physical, psychological and physical wellbeing was once widely considered an alternative therapy.
Mr Aiken added: "It's about people's well being and about feeling relaxed and less tense at what is, I am sure, an anxious time in hospital for them."
Ecas chief executive David Griffiths said aromatherapy was a good way to improve the quality of life for those with physical disabilities.
He said: "We are delighted that the patients at Astley Ainslie Hospital benefited so much from the Ecas aromatherapy trial, and that it has also been supported so strongly by the staff."
SNP health spokeswoman Shona Robison added that aromatherapy was now regarded as a mainstream therapy.
She said: "I would say there is a limited role for the NHS to fund recognised complimentary therapies in some cases but I think there has to be some evidence of them working and their use would have to be monitored carefully."
'It takes your mind off being in hospital'
LIBRARIAN John Cumming suffered a stroke more than six weeks ago and is recovering at the Astley Ainslie Hospital in Edinburgh.
The 59-year-old was offered the chance to receive aromatherapy treatment by a regular therapist at the hospital and he has been having his hands and feet massaged for an hour every week.
Mr Cumming believes the treatment, as well as relaxing him, is helping him to regain his physical strength in preparation for returning to his wife at their George Street home.
He said: "The aromatherapist was going around the ward and asked me if I wanted to experience aromatherapy."
He added: "It makes me feel very relaxed and it takes your mind off being in hospital.
"I think anything that helps you to relax is good for you and I think aromatherapy has done that for me."