Summer travelers who love the water don't just gravitate to hotel swimming pools and the beach. Many also visit hot mineral springs at spas and resorts, where business booms in summer despite the heat. Those who visit the springs are hoping to relax, reduce stress and find other benefits.
The dissolved solids in hot springs can include sulfur, calcium bicarbonate, sodium bicarbonate and other substances, each credited with particular health benefits. Bicarbonates are said to improve circulation, sulfur to relieve a stuffy nose and salt water to ease digestion, among other effects, says Nathaniel Altman, a New York writer and author of "Healing Springs: The Ultimate Guide to Taking the Waters" (Healing Arts Press, 2000).
Hot springs flow naturally from beneath Earth's surface. In the U.S., the temperature of the water is typically kept at about 100 to 104 degrees, depending on how much the commercial spa operators cool the water after it rises to the surface.
So can a good soak in steamy mineral springs--or "taking the waters," as it's called--not only relax a harried traveler but also improve health and reduce the symptoms of some diseases?
It depends on who you ask. In some countries, soaking in hot mineral springs to improve health, called balneotherapy, is accepted medicine, but it's still widely regarded as alternative or complementary treatment in the United States. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, does not advise consumers about using hot springs to improve their health, said spokeswoman Anita Greene.
Almost everyone agrees that a good soak can be relaxing, but beyond that, experts disagree on its benefits. Spa operators, especially those in the U.S., are usually careful to talk only about the water's relaxing qualities. "We believe it's a rejuvenating process, but we make no health claims," says a spokeswoman for Dr. Wilkinson's Resort, one of several hot-springs resorts in the Calistoga area in Northern California. The operators of Glenwood Hot Springs in Glenwood Springs, Colo., mention in their promotional literature that the Ute Indians were the first to visit these hot springs and that they believed the soaks cured illness. Today the spa often gets referrals from physicians who prescribe soaks for patients in physical rehabilitation.
Studies suggest that hot spring water helps relieve osteoarthritis symptoms. In a study published in 1999 in an Israeli medical journal, patients with arthritis in the knees who bathed in a sulfur pool, the Dead Sea or a combination suffered less pain, stiffness and immobility than those who bathed in neither. Another study, published earlier this year in the journal Rheumatology International, reported that patients with fibromyalgia (a syndrome marked by pain in the muscles, tendons and other tissues) who took sulfur baths had longer-lasting relief from pain, fatigue and other symptoms than patients who didn't take the baths.
Even physicians who regard hot mineral spring soaks as alternative medicine say that anecdotal evidence of their health benefits is plentiful. "Hot water increases blood flow to the joints," says Dr. Stanley Cohen, on staff at St. Paul Medical Center, Dallas, who cares for many patients with osteoarthritis. Many report relief of pain after using hot mineral springs, he says. He sees the short-term benefit but cautions patients not to abandon conventional care.
Dr. Paulette Adams, a family physician who practices near Calistoga, often cares for geriatric patients who use the nearby mineral hot springs and says those with osteoarthritis frequently report relief. In general, she says, the hot water also induces relaxation and relieves back and neck pain and pain associated with sports injuries. "I can't comment on the minerals," Adams says. "I'm sure they must have some effects, but I have no scientific evidence."
People with high blood pressure, heart disease or diabetes should check with a doctor before soaking in hot mineral springs, Adams says. Patients with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder marked by joint inflammation, should check with their physician before taking the plunge, she adds. If they are having a flare-up, the heat can aggravate their condition.
Pregnant women should check with their doctor and, if they get the go-ahead, treat a mineral spring as they would a hot tub, advises Dr. John Larsen, professor and chair of obstetrics and gynecology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Exposing the fetus to high temperatures can lead to birth defects, doctors believe.
"Go in for 10 minutes a session," Larsen typically advises a woman with an uncomplicated pregnancy. But his advice holds only for commercial hot springs, which closely regulate temperatures, and not for thermal springs found in natural settings, which can be excessively hot. (Natural spring waters may also contain potentially harmful bacteria, so travelers interested in minimizing health risks should choose commercial operations.)
And Larsen still advises pregnant women to get their doctor's permission.
Soaks should be brief for everyone, most agree. Altman says 20 minutes is a good maximum, but some physicians prescribe briefer soaks. Staying two or three weeks at a hot spring resort is ideal for maximum healing, according to Altman.
Whether the stay is lengthy or brief, Altman suggests scheduling some downtime between your last soak and your departure from a hot-spring resort. If the waters have done their job, you'll be so relaxed that just driving home might be too much.
The Healthy Traveler column appears twice a month.