Return of the water cure

Balneology, fangotherapy, lounging around - call it what you will, taking the waters is back.

Last year about 15 million Europeans immersed themselves daily in warm pools, lazed voluptuously in the sun and enjoyed the exquisite ministrations of professional masseurs for up to four weeks at a time. Then they sent the bill to the country's equivalent of the NHS. Millions more left private health insurers to pick up the tab.

Spa "cures" are among the most commonly prescribed treatments among Italian, French and German doctors. In Germany alone balneology - the technical name for water treatment - supports a pounds 9bn industry, much of it paid for by taxpayers.

For most of this century the British have declined to take part in the sybaritic pleasures of the water cure. Now, though, well heeled UK trend- setters are jostling to beat the Germans to the massage couches at a growing number of spa-cum-health-and-beauty centres in luxurious hotels. Thermalia Travel, which specialises in spa resorts, says the number of British clients has increased tenfold in five years.

The new fashion - like most - is actually a re-emergence of a very old one. The practice of bathing in and drinking from natural hot-water springs goes back nearly 3,000 years and countless ancient cities grew up around spas, including, of course, Bath itself. In the 17th and 18th centuries, "taking the waters" was de rigueur among England's gentry, but the practice declined with the rise of "rational" medicine, which offered instant, aggressive cures in place of slow, gentle ones.

In the rest of Europe, however, spas continued to flourish and many Continental doctors still think they are just as effective for many conditions as drugs and surgery. For chronic disorders such as persistent lower back pain, or gastrointestinal problems such as kidney stones, or liver and gall bladder complaints, spas are often used as a first line of treatment before more radical steps are taken.

The treatment has three central components: mineral water, massage and mud. The water may be bathed in, drunk or inhaled while massage can include aromatherapy, underwater jets, and various types of manipulation. Mud baths - known as fangotherapy - involve being covered in local clay that has been "matured" with bacteria and algae to create a biologically active and mineral-rich poultice.

Different spas are famous for treating different ailments, but nearly all of them claim to be good for rheumatism and arthritis; respiratory illnesses like asthma and bronchitis; skin conditions like eczema; circulation and digestive disorders and gynaecological complaints.

You can, of course, just roll up to your chosen spa and take a dip - most of the 5,000-odd springs in Europe are freely accessible. But a more systematic treatment is usually given in hotels and hospitals clustered around the water source. They vary from austere boarding houses staffed by stern nurses to magnificently luxurious hotels. Guests are given a check-up by a specialist balneologist and prescribed a treatment regime that typically involves a daily water or mud session, massage, rest and exercise. Some hotels provide a beauty, slimming, anti-stress or cellulite- busting package. Treatment styles range from the strictly remedial to the frankly hedonistic: one Turkish hotel invites guests to wallow in its massive indoor hot mineral bath while waiters hand out wine and sweetmeats and belly-dancers gyrate around the edge.

Spa treatments are undoubtedly beneficial. The warmth - most springs emerge at the temperature of a warm bath - eases stiffness, and the massage relaxes tight muscles. Combined with sun, exercise and good food - all important adjuncts - the feel-good factor is immense. But balneologists claim spa treatment does much more than create a sense of well-being.

Researchers at the University of Padua, for example, claim they can show that warm mineral water and mud has a wide range of specific effects. On the skin, they say it stimulates the underlying cells to produce new, healthy tissue, and when inhaled as steam it stimulates the immune cells in the mucous lining of the nose to put up stronger resistance to infections. They also say it reduces bronchial sensitivity - one study in France found that in asthmatic children who had spa therapy, the number of schooldays lost through illness was substantially reduced.

When the water is drunk, say the balneologists, it lowers blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and therefore may help to stop arteries from thickening. One study found people with severe cardiovascular disease were able to walk twice as far after spa therapy as before.

In the case of arthritic complaints, mud therapy has been shown to stimulate the metabolic activity which precedes cartilage regrowth. This, say the researchers, is one reason why 88 per cent of people with degenerative arthritis claim to be improved by the treatment.

Bone cell growth has also been shown to be stimulated, and it is thought that spa treatments could help people with osteoporosis. Fangotherapy has also been shown to stimulate production of anti-inflammatory hormones. Women with vaginal infections are said to benefit from the antiseptic action of the minerals, and the oestrogen found in some spa waters is said to help with menopausal symptoms. The mud reduces local water retention around the site of tissue damage, so it speeds recovery from surgery and sports injuries.

"Thermal treatments have been practised since antiquity but it is only recently that they have been systematically appraised," says Luciano Menozzi, professor of medical hydrology at the University of Padua. Research, he says "now gives hydrology a scientific basis like any other medical discipline."

Most British doctors are ignorant of or sceptical about these claims, but a small group have recently set up the British Association of Thermal Therapy (Bath) to investigate them.

"Obviously there's something to spa therapy, over and above the effects of water and relaxation," says Bath's chairman, Jeffrey Rosenberg, a London- based rheumatologist. "I have seen some very good results with psoriasis, but I reckon that 30 per cent or so is down to ultra-violet - sunlight; about the same amount is due to the minerals in the water and so on, and the rest is down to the psychological effect of a relaxing break."

Dr Colin Crosby, a sports medicine specialist in North London, puts the "feel-good" factor even higher, at about 70 per cent. "I wouldn't want to use spa therapy for acute injuries because - despite the anti-inflammatory claims made for the mud-baths - I suspect it would make things worse. But for arthritis caused by old injuries I think it could be very good," he says. "I have an old shoulder injury myself and last time I went to a spa I was given excellent physiotherapy alongside the water treatments. It certainly helped."

Dr Faith Haddad, a gynaecologist at the Garden Hospital, North London, and a member of Bath, is sceptical about some of the claims - that spa treatment can help with endometriosis, for example, or period pain. "I can see that the waters might be able to help vaginal infections" she says, "and any condition which is linked to stress could obviously be improved. But the main thing about it is that it is the most wonderful holiday you can imagine - and that has tremendous health benefits of its own."

Thermalia Travel arranges Spa holidays to Europe, Thailand and South Africa. A typical two-week package, including flights and treatments, costs about pounds 1,000. Telephone 0171-722 7218. Erna Low Consultants package deals include spas in Hungary and Switzerland.Telephone 0171-584 2841.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

    £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

    Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

    £25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant

    £18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have previous experience...

    Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015