Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Science of Spa

Is there scientific proof that massage reduces stress? Are mud-packs and mineral-baths medically proven to alleviate pain? Is ear candling proven to remove ear wax? The answers: yes, yes and no.  Get ready for a new era where more questions about the effectiveness of spa therapies and spa products will be asked, and where these questions will get answered more transparently, as the emphasis on evidence-based medicine and the “science behind spa” heats up. 

Science is about verifiable knowledge and adhering to the method of documenting outcomes and effects. Well, there’s a growing body of medical evidence about the proven benefits of spas’ ever-expanding wellness approaches like massage, meditation, acupuncture, healthy sleep, weight loss, hydrotherapy and exercise which are now becoming more available and visible.

Take for example the recent New York Times article, “A Good Massage Brings Biological Changes Too,” reporting on a Cedars-Sinai study that revealed a 45-minute massage resulted in a significant decrease in stress hormones, while boosting immunity. Or a recent study in the American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation documenting that pain caused by knee osteoarthritis was significantly alleviated by two weeks of spa therapy, including mud-packs and mineral-water baths. Just this month (November 2010) medical studies revealed mindfulness therapies can improve quality of life in multiple sclerosis patients, adequate sleep is crucial to losing body fat, and increased exercise reduces breast cancer risk. The evidence is not all new - medical professionals (especially in Europe) have been prescribing spa therapies for decades, and thousands of studies are buried in archives around the world. (For example, much of the evidence on the benefits of another 2011 trend, salt inhalation/halotherapy, comes from Russian medical studies).

At the 2010 Global Spa Summit, Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier, Clinical Professor of Medicine at major U.S. university hospitals, put forth what more integrative medical experts are increasingly arguing - there is no larger body of scientific evidence that exists than the archive proving mind-body approaches work — while, conversely, there are numerous studies (i.e., the Cochrane Collaboration in London) revealing that only 30%-35% of conventional medicine is adequately evidence-based. Dr. Pelletier challenged the spa industry to “be less conservative and get organised about generating and communicating the evidence based data about the efficacy of its various approaches and therapies.” And that’s exactly what we’ll see more of in 2011, with industry projects underway to aggregate and curate into an accessible archive and promote existing scientific research highlighting the medical value of various spa modalities.

There is always the frustrating circularity that with the vast majority of medical research funding coming from the pharmaceutical companies’ deep pockets, their offerings have the most evidence to back them. But with more medical professionals embracing integrative/alternative medicine and consumers - more proactive about their own well-being - look for clinical studies on everything from the effects of massage on pain, anxiety, depression or immune health in preterm infants to how eating green, leafy vegetables prevents diabetes, to accelerate next year.

And as so many more hospitals directly incorporate spa/wellness therapies on site, consumers will have powerful visual evidence of “medicine” validating “spa.”

Another key way the spa industry will get more aggressive on the evidence based front - more smart spas will start specifically tailoring their offerings (in marketing messages, on their websites, in talking to clients) to this growing archive of medical data.

As these initiatives and forces accelerate, the benefits of spa/wellness will be increasingly not only heard, but also believed by more consumers (often desperately) seeking health alternatives — by doctors who prescribe, by public officials who legislate and by insurers who reimburse. These evidence based initiatives should ultimately prove the bedrock for future, perhaps unimagined, industry growth. 

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