For some people with psoriasis, spa therapy is a clear choice

Spa therapy saltsIn the 1990s, when Richard Strezo was living in England, a British colleague noticed psoriasis lesions on his wrist. She told him that she too had psoriasis. "I was surprised. I looked at her and she had perfect skin," he remembers.

His colleague said she had vacationed at a spa at the Dead Sea two years before, and her psoriasis had been in remission since. Richard was intrigued. "It just lodged in my mind, that Dead Sea thing, and I thought, 'Someday I'll go there.' "

For millennia, people with psoriasis and other disorders have made pilgrimages to the Dead Sea, where the waters, 10 times as salty as the ocean, are rich in magnesium and other minerals. The ancient lake lies 1,200 feet below sea level. Atmospheric density there blocks harmful radiation, extending the amount of time it is safe to lie in the sun. The increased oxygen in the air, aficionados say, calms the nerves and relaxes the mind.

Off to the spa

A decade after his conversation with his colleague, Richard Strezo was living in West Chicago. Psoriasis lesions on his back, knees, legs and arms weren't responding to steroids or topical treatments. He had stopped wearing shorts and short-sleeved shirts.

When he saw an advertisement for a new spa that used Dead Sea salt baths and narrow-band ultraviolet light B (UVB) therapy to treat psoriasis, "it was like something clicked in my brain."

Richard began driving the 25 miles to Des Plaines, another Chicago suburb, three times a week for treatment at the Mavena Derma Center, a therapeutic spa that offers "balneo-phototherapy," a treatment that uses extremely high concentrations of Dead Sea salts. The treatment mimics the Dead Sea regimen by combining brine baths with narrow-band UVB light treatments.

The therapy works, says Mavena Vice President Jerri McGinnis, because minerals in the salts help the skin trap hydration, softening the skin and breaking down thick plaques that characterize psoriasis. UV rays applied immediately after the brine soak are then able to penetrate more easily.

After 25 to 30 treatments, most patients are 85 to 90 percent clear of psoriasis and stay that way for about six months without further treatment, McGinnis says. Many patients adopt a less intensive maintenance schedule to prevent remission.

Spa hot spots

Blue lagoon mineral waterThe Mavena center is one of several places psoriasis patients can go for some form of balneotherapy—a general term for therapy that involves mineral waters.

Soap Lake in Central Washington state has been a popular health destination since the early 1900s. Its mineral-rich waters and mud are thought to be curative for a number of skin diseases. Today, there are several small spas in town and visitors can be seen bathing in the lake or applying mud to their skin. In Saskatchewan, Canada, Manitou Beach is also known for its mineral-rich waters. A resort spa there includes indoor tubs and luxury services.

Several French spas, including the Avène Hydrotherapy Center in the south of France and the La Roche Posay spa near Poitiers, about 185 miles from Paris, provide therapy from thermal springs. These therapies often combine bathing with drinking the water, sunlight and other treatments.

Other sites with healing waters include cities along the coast of Egypt's Red Sea and Iceland's famed Blue Lagoon which has a clinic that specifically treats psoriasis.

More study needed

Which component of spa therapy works on psoriasis hasn't been adequately studied, says Dr. Alexa Kimball, vice chair of dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital.

"It's difficult to interpret the efficacy of these treatments without a control group," she says. "There are many factors, including hygiene effects and emollients potentially in the waters. It's not clear whether even the Dead Sea effect, which is well-documented, is due to the water or more to the sunlight at that location." Though the phenomenon requires more study, Dr. Kimball says that spa therapies do work for some people and should be substantially safe. She cautions that UVB therapy of any kind should be monitored by a physician.

For Richard Strezo, the evidence is his own skin. Over the course of 25 sessions, his psoriasis improved significantly and is now nearly gone. He continues to get treatment two or three times a month and uses the spa's topical products. Spa therapy, he says, has made his life better.